"I certainly would like to prevent, if I could legally, anybody having an abortion—a rich woman, a middle-class woman, or a poor woman." Those were the words of Henry Hyde, an Illinois Republican, in 1977. At the time, the congressman was pushing hard for a law that would squash the rights of women—particularly poor women. He was successful.
Hyde, who died in 2007, is the namesake of the so-called Hyde Amendment, a federal spending provision that has been continually renewed by Congress since it was first passed in 1976 (it was upheld by the US Supreme Court in 1980). For decades, it has prevented federal funding from paying for abortions except in cases of rape, incest, or threat to the life of the woman, and its limitations have had perhaps their strongest effect on those who can't afford to pay out of pocket for abortions: low-income women who qualify for government assistance like Medicaid.
The Hyde Amendment is one of the most enduring conservative victories in the war on reproductive rights. And in response, some individual states have picked up the burden of helping low-income women who qualify for Medicaid gain access to abortions. Washington is one of those states—which is one reason we're regularly ranked highly by pro-choice groups and given failing grades by the other side.
Now, however, Republicans in the Washington State House want to honor Hyde's punitive, puritanical vision—and go even further.
Currently in Washington, low-income women who qualify for Medicaid can get help paying for an abortion, no matter the reason. But a new bill sponsored by 23 state house Republicans (18 of them men, five of them women) would limit that access to only cases in which a woman's life is in "imminent danger." The language of House Bill 2294 goes well beyond the Hyde Amendment, which carves out exemptions for cases of rape and incest as well as cases of danger to the mother's life. In other words, these Washington Republicans want to deny abortion access to rape and incest survivors who become pregnant with their attacker's child.
Only one other state, South Dakota, has a similar law on the books. This Washington State bill would also defund any organizations like Planned Parenthood that provide "elective abortions" or any organizations that are "affiliated, in whole or in part," with those abortion providers.
It's a draconian effort that Speaker of the House Frank Chopp (D-Seattle) is promising to stop in its tracks. But it's also a warning to progressives who may be complacently assuming this kind of law can never happen here. Sure, Chopp and other Democrats control the state house now—by two votes. Meanwhile, Republicans control the state senate. Which means we're only an election away from a situation in which a bill like this might not get stopped in its tracks. On top of that, this is a huge election year. All of the house lawmakers supporting this bill—and many of their Republican colleagues in the senate—are facing voters in November. If Republicans feel no pain from putting forward this retrograde proposal, it will only embolden them, especially if they wind up with a house majority after this year's voting is done.
Make no mistake: Bills like this one disproportionately affect low-income women, because they're the ones who qualify for Medicaid and who most depend on clinics like Planned Parenthood, which offer care far beyond abortions to people without health insurance. More broadly, efforts like this effectively try to put the government in the business of legislating a poor woman's choice for her.
By design, this bill would do nothing to take away support from women who decide to carry their pregnancies to term and need state assistance with prenatal care, delivery, and the first year of their child's life. But by not similarly covering abortions—which are, like pregnancy, legal—it would treat women differently based on which choice they make, creating a preference for birth over abortion.
Janet Chung, a lawyer with the women's rights advocacy group Legal Voice, calls the bill "cruel." "Recognize what this bill is," she says. "An attack on low-income women, often women of color."
Such bills also strip survivors of rape and incest of a vital choice—whether to carry to term a pregnancy born of trauma. The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network estimates that in this country about 17,300 pregnancies were the result of rape in 2012.
"We know helping people recover from sexual assault involves helping them feel they've got control back over their lives," says Mary Ellen Stone, executive director of the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center. "Some women will make that choice to carry to term, and that is an absolutely fine choice for them, but you cannot impose your view on every victim that's been sexually assaulted."
Democrats tend to agree. Chopp says the Republican bill is "wrong on many fronts" and, again, dead on arrival. But he adds that Republicans have been trying to chip away at access to abortion for years in this state, and national trends—the attempts to defund Planned Parenthood in Congress among them—are cause for "renewed concern." Particularly egregious efforts like this one from the Washington State House Republicans "send the message that elections matter and majorities matter," Chopp says. "People should take it very seriously."
Low-income women's right to access abortion coverage in Washington State was solidified in 1991, the year voters here narrowly approved an initiative that affirmed the use of state Medicaid dollars to pay for abortions and guaranteed women's access to abortion even if Roe v. Wade was overturned. Since then, the state has maintained its reputation as a deep-blue, pro-choice haven.
None of which has stopped Republicans from conservative areas of the state from making it a point, year after year, to target reproductive rights. During last year's legislative session, they blocked efforts to expand insurance coverage of abortion and birth control while introducing bills requiring parental notification for minors receiving abortions (the parental-notification effort failed to gain traction in either chamber). And they've become only more "emboldened" by recent attacks on Planned Parenthood, says Jennifer Allen, a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii.
"There is a national coordinated strategy that is seeking, bit-by-bit and sometimes in big chunks, to take away reproductive health care access," Allen says, "and nobody should anticipate that that campaign is going to go away anytime soon."
The 23 Republicans who've now signed on to the bill restricting funding in Washington include some of the legislature's most notorious members, including Spokane Valley militia supporter Matt Shea and Snoqualmie's Jay "Islam is incompatible with Western civilization!" Rodne. Earlier this month, I reached out to all 20 of the original sponsors of the bill and received no response. Through a spokesperson, lead sponsor Representative David Taylor, who's from Moxee, just east of Yakima, declined to comment.
Chung, from Legal Voice, describes recent efforts to limit abortions in Washington and elsewhere as "death by a thousand cuts." Going after funding for abortion care—whether through public programs like Medicaid or private insurance plans—is "one of the thousand cuts that has been very effective."
According to the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-choice research and policy organization, lawmakers considered 396 measures limiting access to abortion in 46 states in 2015 and, by the end of the year, 17 states had enacted 57 new abortion restrictions. Among them, five states passed laws attempting to stop Planned Parenthood from receiving Medicaid dollars (some of those laws ended up blocked by court challenges). Two of those states, plus five more, prohibit abortion providers from receiving state family planning funds.
"It's always tricky messaging about public funding for anything," says Rachel Berkson, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Washington. But in the recent national environment—in which Republican presidential candidates have continued to falsely claim that Planned Parenthood harvests "baby parts"—"There's definitely a tie-in there," Berkson says. "They're seeing that moment right now."
Charmaine Yoest, president of the national group Americans United for Life, which crafts anti-abortion model legislation for state legislatures, told the National Catholic Register earlier this month that "people expect there to be a response from their elected representatives" to the heavily doctored Planned Parenthood videos, and that "momentum is on the side of life." (I made multiple requests for interviews with the AUL for this story, but the organization did not make anyone available for an interview by press time.)
Pro-choice advocates are staring down an uncertain legislative session this year. They're pushing for better access to birth control, which could help reduce unintended pregnancies. A bill requiring insurance companies to cover a year's worth of contraception at a time is supported by both NARAL and Planned Parenthood, and has some early bipartisan support in both houses. Yet advocates are still beating back efforts on defunding and parental notification. Meanwhile, pro-choice Democrats are losing their grip on the state legislature and voters are increasingly checked out. Last time members of the legislature were up for election, in 2014, voter turnout was just 54 percent. This past fall—during a special election in which house Democrats suffered their latest loss, by way of a house seat in Federal Way's 30th Legislative District—just 38 percent of registered voters turned in their ballots.
Again: The state senate is controlled by Republicans (and the one Democrat who joins them in the Majority Coalition Caucus). Democrats maintain control of the house, but only by a two-vote margin. And if you think we'll always have a Democratic governor to use the veto pen to protect reproductive rights, think again. Democratic governor Jay Inslee is up for reelection this year, too. A recent Elway poll—with about a third of likely voters still undecided—found that Inslee led Republican challenger Bill Bryant by just 9 percentage points and led a "generic Republican" by just 5 points.
The fact that 2016 is a presidential election year should help, by boosting turnout among left-leaning voters. But don't take that for granted, and don't forget: legislative seats are up every two years. If progressive voters show up only when the presidency is on the line, these same anti-choice Republicans whose efforts are being blocked today will end up in tomorrow's majority.
What can you do? Step one: Register to vote (myvote.wa.gov). Step two: Call and e-mail these anti-choice lawmakers and tell them you're watching and will work to defeat them. Step three: Work to defeat them.