This week, the Democratic Party for the first time in its history adopted a platform that vows to end the so-called Hyde Amendment, a federal ban on using taxpayer money to fund abortions.
The news raised eyebrows among some groups of Democrats, including those who consider themselves pro-life and those who while they support access to legal abortion, nonetheless retain some moral qualms about the procedure.
The issue has prompted some spirited debate among Democrats, with editorials this week appearing in the Los Angeles Times and USA Today. Even the Democrats’ own White House ticket cannot seem to agree.
Hillary Clinton said in January that she supports repealing the Hyde Amendment as part of her broader goal of expanding access to abortion.
But her running mate, Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, has a more complicated position on the issue. He has said many times that as a Catholic he is personally opposed to abortion, and as governor of Virginia, he signed some bills supported by pro-life activists.
His voting record in the U.S. Senate, however, has earned him perfect scores from Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America. Then again, Kaine said as recently as July 6 that he supports the Hyde Amendment.
(Just today, the Clinton campaign is quoted in two contradictory stories that say Kaine either now supports repealing the Hyde Amendment or that he remains personally opposed but supports Clinton’s goals, which includes repealing it. The Clinton campaign did not respond to a request for comment.)
As Clinton and Kaine sort out their views on the issue, some may be asking: What is the Hyde Amendment?
The Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973, which meant that Medicaid, the federal insurance program for low-income Americans, covered the procedure, to the tune of about 300,000 abortions per year.
Three years later, Republican Congressman Henry Hyde of Illinois proposed an amendment to a federal spending bill that prohibited federal money from funding abortion. His proposal meant that Medicaid would no longer pay for the procedure, except in cases where the life of the mother was at risk.
Hyde’s amendment passed, and after some legal wrangling, it was implemented in 1977. The number of abortions covered by Medicaid dropped to a few thousand per year.
The Supreme Court in 1980 decided in a 5-4 ruling that the Hyde Amendment was constitutional. Since then, it has been included on every federal spending bill, its language varying slightly from year to year, expanding to allow Medicaid to cover abortion if the mother’s life is in danger or if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.
States also took action on the issue. More than a dozen authorize state money to fund abortions for women whose Medicaid will not cover the procedure, while others have their own bans on the use of taxpayer funds.
For much of its 40-year history, the Hyde Amendment was considered a fairly non-controversial compromise. But in recent years, abortion rights activists have put pressure on lawmakers to oppose renewing the amendment, saying it amounted to an unfair burden on poor women. At the same time, pro-life activists on both sides of the aisle have sought to codify the Hyde Amendment into law.
For now, with the Democrats unlikely to take control of the House in November’s elections, it remains unlikely much will change.