This article was updated on June 6, 2019 as the Hyde Amendment again became a focus of controversy in the Democratic Party.
In a video-captured conversation that came to light on June 5, the former vice president and 2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden appeared to suggest he backed the repeal of the Hyde Amendment. His campaign quickly clarified that Mr. Biden thought the activist was asking about the so-called Mexico City rule, which prohibits U.S. foreign aid to non-American organizations that provide abortion services.
The campaign said Mr. Biden supports ending the Mexico City rule but backs the Hyde Amendment—for now. That would change, it said, “if avenues for women to access their protected rights under Roe v. Wade are closed.”
A Biden campaign spokesperson explained the former vice president specifically “would be open to repealing” Hyde if abortion access is further threatened by laws—like those recently passed in Georgia and Alabama—that deeply restrict access to abortion.
The hedging prompted an intraparty outcry, with advocates for abortion rights deploring Mr. Biden’s position and top Democrats reaffirming their commitment to abortion rights and ending Hyde. The pushback marked the first significant instance in which virtually the entire crowded 2020 field united to critique Mr. Biden, who has emerged as an early Democratic front-runner.
This is not a new debate for the Democratic Party. In 2016, 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.
In her run for president, Hillary Clinton said 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, had 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.
(On July 27, the Clinton campaign was quoted in two contradictory stories that said Kaine either 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.)
So 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.