In an extreme and somewhat abrupt about-face, former vice president and 2020 presidential contender Joe Biden has drop-kicked the Hyde Amendment after more than four decades of agreeing with it.
The Hyde Amendment, passed in 1976 and affirmed by the Supreme Court in 1980, prohibits federal funds from being used for abortions except in cases of rape, incest or endangerment to the life of the mother. The law’s impact is particularly devastating to poor women — who depend on Medicaid for their health care and discriminates against women of color who often need abortion services the most: those who have reduced access to family planning, and experience higher rates of sexual victimization.
The Hyde Amendment directly affects Native women in detrimental and discriminatory ways, since the vast majority of Native women receive health services from the Indian Health Service, a federally funded agency. Native women’s reliance on Indian Health Service has effectively banned women from accessing abortions since the inception of the amendment.
Charon Asetoyer is the founder and executive director of the Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center on the Yankton Nakota reservation in South Dakota. Asetoyer has been one of the most vocal Native advocates in Indian Country trying to raise awareness about the Hyde Amendment. “In effect, it violates the constitutional rights of women,” she says. “It amounts to a systematic infringement on reproductive choice for Native women.”
A 2003 study by the Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center clearly indicated that Native women were not able to access abortions even in the traumatic, allowable prescribed cases of rape and incest. The study found that over the course of 22 years, a mere 25 abortions had been performed by the 352 Indian Health Service nationwide, a figure hugely disproportionate to the number of rapes reported.
The amendment was Representative Henry Hyde’s signature piece. The then-first term Republican from Illinois authored and attached to an appropriations bill in 1974. Hyde was hard-core anti-abortion. Biden voted in favor of the amendment’s passage in 1976 and had continuously supported it until Thursday.
Biden, a Catholic, has been on the record opposed to abortion but has stated that he would not impose his religious beliefs on the rest of society.
Biden’s reversal was especially surprising since NBC reported that he remained in favor of the amendment just the day before. Biden had been the lone Democratic candidate who stood behind Hyde. The news of Biden’s ongoing Hyde support ignited ire from the field of presidential candidates and abortion rights advocates. Earlier on the campaign trail, Biden said that he was only open to the repeal of Hyde if women lost the right to an abortion in an overturn of Roe.
It is likely that a one-two punch knocked Biden off his Hyde horse. His Democratic rivals piled on blasting him for continuing to support Hyde as well as women’s health organizations including Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America. Presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Bernie Sanders, and Beto O’ Rourke all issued statements calling out Biden for his rogue position.
But Biden also cited the extreme abortion laws sweeping Republican-controlled states that have threatened women’s reproductive rights and access to abortions as the reason for his change of heart.
At a Democratic National Committee fundraiser Thursday in Atlanta, Biden said that he voted for Hyde’s passage in 1976 because he thought that women still had access to abortions, even if federally funded programs disallowed abortions. Biden stated his support for Roe and then reversed course on his long-held position.
Biden stated, “Women’s rights and health care are under assault in a way that seeks to roll back every step of progress we’ve made over the last 50 years.” And in a move that surprised many, he said he believed that healthcare is a right and he could no longer support the amendment.
Hyde is effectively anti-choice and leaves the decision of funding abortion to the states, and most states choose not to fund them.
Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America said in a statement, “We’re glad that Joe Biden listened to the voices of millions of women and further clarified his position on the Hyde Amendment…we need full-throated allies in our leaders.”
Leslie Logan, Seneca, is a writer and PR consultant that has written for Indian Country Today, the National Museum of the American Indian, Aboriginal Voices and Indigenous Woman. She is the former communications director for the Seneca Nation and the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe.