On September 30, 1976, a Congress controlled overwhelmingly by Democrats passed legislation that for the first time prohibited federal Medicaid funds from being used to pay for abortion, except in cases in which the mother’s life was in danger. The Hyde Amendment, named for its author, Illinois congressman Henry Hyde, was signed by President Jimmy Carter the following year and survived a later challenge to its constitutionality, in 1980. It has been renewed (with the later addition of an exception for cases of rape and incest) by every Congress — and signed by every president — for the past 40 years.
Donald Trump and Mike Pence announced this month that their administration would protect conscience rights by making the Hyde Amendment permanent law. Notably, the Hyde Amendment has been consistently bipartisan. The initial Hyde Amendment in 1976 passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 207 to 167, with 113 Democrats voting in favor of the measure.
Some supporters were strongly pro-life. Others voted for the measure because they believed that Americans who consider abortion to be the taking of an innocent human life should not be forced to pay for the procedure with their tax dollars — just as pacifists should not be compelled by their government to fight in wars in violation of their conscience. The consensus in favor of Hyde’s conscience protections has endured regardless of which party controlled Congress or the White House. As the Washington Post editorialized in 2015: “The question of whether and how congressional appropriations can be used or abortions has long been settled, for better or worse.”
It’s long been clear that there is no room in the Democratic party for political leaders (such as the late Pennsylvania governor Bob Casey) who oppose Roe v. Wade’s regime of abortion on demand. There is no longer any room for those who support legal abortion but oppose forcing taxpayers to fund it. The party that first enacted the Hyde Amendment with the votes of more than 100 Democrats has now repudiated it.
The American people, however, have not rejected the conscience protections enshrined in the Hyde Amendment. A recent Marist poll showed that a substantial majority — 62 percent — oppose taxpayer funding of abortion. Forty-five percent of those who say they are pro-choice on abortion and 44 percent of Democrats polled oppose federal funding of the procedure. In fact, nearly one-third (32 percent) of all Democrats say they are pro-life.
Nearly eight in ten Americans think that abortion should be legal only in the first three months of pregnancy. Clinton believes in a right to abortion on demand up to the moment of a baby’s birth.
The Democratic platform that calls for the repeal of the Hyde Amendment also wishes to reverse all “federal and state laws and policies that impede a woman’s access to abortion.” These include laws that prohibit U.S. foreign aid from paying for abortions performed overseas (which number in the millions) as well as state laws that limit the use of state tax revenues to pay for abortions. The Clinton-Kaine policy, if fully implemented, would mean that American taxpayers — the majority of whom oppose abortion on demand — will foot the bill for more than half of all abortions in the United States.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch says, “The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.” The Democratic party used to believe this. Sadly, Democrats’ push to repeal the Hyde Amendment 40 years after they led the way in enacting it, demonstrates that they no longer do.