February 15, 2019

These High Holy Days, hoping for a future free from Hyde

I teach high school sex ed, and the hardest talk I have with my students isn’t about their views on abortion; it’s about how they can’t expect to access abortion unless they live in the “right” place and have the “right” job. Regardless of their personal feelings about abortion — some are comfortable with it and others wrestle with their beliefs — all of my students express confusion and dismay over the needless politicization of this care.

Unfortunately for my students, the situation is a lot worse than what we discuss in class. September 30 marks the 40th anniversary of the Hyde Amendment. First enacted in 1976 to prohibit abortion care for poor women, Hyde and the many federal abortion coverage restrictions for which it’s paved the way, punish a select group of women for becoming pregnant, with the poorest among us hit hardest. 

Hyde bans coverage for abortion for individuals enrolled in most federal health plans and programs, and is reauthorized by Congress annually as part of the federal appropriations process. Its reach is vast. If my students join the Peace Corps, the military, or work for the federal government in any other capacity, they won’t have the coverage they need to access their basic constitutional right to abortion care.

Worse, only 15 states choose to provide additional coverage for abortion using their own locally raised revenue. Many low-income women enrolled in Medicaid or Medicare don’t have coverage unless they are willing to go through the traumatic process of proving rape, incest or life endangerment. The same applies to low-income women living in the District of Columbia, living in federal prisons or detention centers, and Native American women. Should my students require health care through a federal program outside of California, they will likely experience a dearth of options.

Approximately one in three women will have an abortion before the age of 45. It is one of the most common reproductive health procedures. But the steady closure of low-cost reproductive health clinics across the nation has largely made abortion the privilege of higher income white women. Low-income women, often of color, are effectively forced to delay abortion until it’s too costly and more complicated. A woman who wants to get an abortion but is denied is more likely to fall into poverty than a woman who can get an abortion.

Bans that deny coverage for abortion also strip low-income women of their religious freedom. The majority of people of faith nationwide support access to the full range of reproductive services, but Hyde allows elected officials with specific religious views to impose their beliefs on all of us. Women are being denied the ability to follow their own faith and values when making the decision to become a parent. Taking this decision out of women’s hands also infantilizes us, as we are deemed incapable of making the right decisions for ourselves, in private, with our doctors.

I want my students to have the same religious freedoms and care options wherever they go in the US. This is why I volunteer with the National Council of Jewish Women, Los Angeles (NCJW/LA), which strives for social justice by improving the quality of life for women, children and families. This September 25-October 1, NCJW/LA will join a broad coalition of reproductive rights, health, and justice organizations, as well as faith groups, for a United for Abortion Coverage Week of Action. Our fellow faith organizations include Catholics for Choice, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and many others.

Our traditions are diverse, but we stand together in opposition to the Hyde Amendment, and in support of the Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance (EACH Woman) Act (HR 2972). The EACH Woman Act will end bans that deny abortion coverage to individuals enrolled in federal health plans and programs.

For the Jewish community, this week of action will culminate with the start of Rosh Hashanah. This is the Jewish new year. It’s a time to reflect on the mistakes of the past and plan for a better future. It is my hope that the future will bring an end to the devastating effects of the Hyde Amendment. A future where women have the resources to make their own decisions about their bodies and families, without political interference and economic coercion.  A future where I can tell my students that they will have the same rights, regardless of their beliefs, wherever they go in the United States.

Rosalind Helfand teaches high school Sex Ed and serves on the Reproductive Justice Committee at the National Council of Jewish Women, Los Angeles (NCJW/LA). She is a recipient of NCJW/LA’s Emerging Leader Award. A nonprofits and government advisor, she frequently consults for the West Hollywood Women’s Leadership Conference, and she’s been a lead organizer of the West Hollywood Human Rights Speakers Series.