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Democrats Control Congress. Why Are They Conceding on Abortion?

Dems are about to break their promise to end the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funding for most abortions.

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Photo: Kevin Dietsch (Getty Images)

After campaigning on the promise to end the Hyde Amendment, a half-century-old budget rider that bans federal funding of most abortions, President Biden and a Democratic-majority Congress are quietly poised to pass a spending bill that will still include it.

Democrats in Congress claim that they want to “save specific policy disputes” in the bill such as the Hyde Amendment for later, Politico reported on Tuesday, but Republicans like Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby—the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee overseeing the budget—have already drawn a line in the sand on the matter. “There wouldn’t be any bill at all if we didn’t have those in there. The legacy riders have to be in there,” Shelby told reporters.

With the Supreme Court an inch away from gutting abortion rights and state legislatures across the country introducing abortion bans at staggering rates, the least the government can do is cover abortion care. Still, acting ​​White House Office of Management and Budget director Shalanda Young said in her confirmation hearing that she would “follow the law and certainly commit to not trying to weaken the Hyde Amendment if Congress chooses not to remove it from appropriations bills.”

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And despite Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s promise to bring the Women’s Health Protection Act (WHPA) to the floor for a vote after the House passed WHPA last year, he’s yet to do so. WHPA, which would establish federal protections for abortion providers to offer abortion services, would likely be dead on arrival in the Senate due to the filibuster.

Congressional inaction on abortion access at this pivotal moment carries especially devastating harm for low-income people: Restrictions on Medicaid coverage of abortion force an estimated one in four low-income pregnant people seeking an abortion to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term, which can push them deeper into poverty or render them more vulnerable to domestic violence. Notably, women of color are significantly more likely than white women to be covered by Medicaid.

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Independent of the Democrats in Congress’ all talk about the urgency of “supporting women’s right to choose” and no action, the Biden administration, on the other hand, has far more options to protect and expand abortion access with the powers of the executive branch. Those options could include hiring clinic workers and abortion providers as federal employees, who would have qualified immunity to offer care in states with abortion bans, or sending out federal mobile abortion clinics to affected states. As Jezebel’s Susan Rinkunas has previously pointed out, if the administration were truly committed, it could send “abortion boats” like the Navy hospital ship, USNS Comfort, to provide abortions to the disproportionately low-income, pregnant people of color who are being victimized by abortion bans in states like Texas. Still, the administration continues to choose inaction.

Lifting a national ban on funding for an essential health service is the bare minimum Democratic lawmakers on the federal level could do to help pregnant people get abortion care right now, as access to abortion is under attack from every direction. That bureaucratic nonsense is stopping the Democratic-controlled Congress from taking action, and the White House seems disinterested in intervening in any meaningful way, speak to a reality that advocates have long had to contend with: Our rights will likely be stripped away in silence while our “allies” in office do nothing.