The devil’s advocate: Debating the Hyde and Helms Amendments
Context: In 1973, following the landmark Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade — since overturned — which recognized a constitutional right to an abortion, President Nixon signed into law the Helms Amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, which bars the use of federal funding for abortions overseas for “family planning.”
The annual appropriation for what is now the Department of Health and Human Services passed four years later bore the first appearance of the Hyde Amendment , which now prohibits the use of federal funding for abortions excluding cases involving rape, incest, or those that are threatening to the life of the mother.
In this column, we combine the amendments in question and debate the use of federal funding for abortions in the U.S. and abroad. In recent years, the position of Democratic Party leadership has shifted against both amendments.
While both Gaughan and Granahan personally oppose the Hyde and Helms Amendments, in the spirit of critical thought and democratic political engagement, Gaughan will argue against his own position and in favor of the amendments invoking the full nature of the “devil’s advocate” to provide a thorough and multisided overview of the issue. Granahan will argue his own views against the amendments.
With its ruling in Roe, the U.S. Supreme Court made what would, in the long run, be among its most controversial decisions, matched in such stature by the court’s decision to overturn the same in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization forty-nine years later. For nearly five decades, the abortion debate surged among politicians, lawyers, and Americans of all walks of life, continually rearing its head before both Congress and the courts. With Roe now gone, the debate appears fiercer than ever before.
In considering issues such as federal funding for abortions and a reversal of the Hyde and Helms Amendments, we must realize that this discussion extends beyond just being pro-life or pro-choice. Instead, it is a debate over the absurd suggestion that fierce opponents of abortion should not merely be overridden in a domestic policy sense, but entirely subverted in the expenditure of both their own financial resources and those of their country.
To many of them, this issue represents an unbreakable line in the sand for public policy, creating a tense climate of deliberation even before we cross beyond the topic of legality itself. Indeed, the amendments which we debate here have long been supported by leaders in both parties until as recently as 2016.
The matter of federal abortion funding may be grounded in the same basis as a broader debate: Is it better to deprive women of bodily autonomy or to devalue the prospective life of the fetus/unborn child? But even this level of depth is unnecessary.
As a democratic society, respectful debate and disagreement are fundamental to our ability to persist as a free nation. That means understanding and accepting our unbridgeable differences, even when we fight for our own principles of justice.
It would be entirely within this tradition for Americans — both pro-choice and pro-life — to work to advance their own conceptions of the rights and restrictions that ought to be adhered to in our society with regard to the legality of abortion.
But to suggest that all Americans, regardless of their views on the matter, should see their hard-earned taxes funneled to this highly controversial procedure at home or abroad, regardless of their religious or philosophical convictions, would be entirely subversive of this principle.
Furthermore, to spill this debate into international waters would extend domestic divisions to the global scene by enabling the use of the tax dollars of pro-life Americans for abortions abroad.
To this effect, a repeal of the Helms Amendment would mean a visceral rebuke of the bipartisan front Democrats like Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, and Republicans like Senator Arthur Vandenberg (R-MI) worked carefully to build when constructing our liberal world order. As Senator Vandenberg, a reliable supporter of a diplomatically integrated global community, wisely asserted, “politics stops at the water’s edge.” In challenging the Helms Amendment, Democrats threaten an already weakened, endangered consensus on international cooperation and collective security, so carefully constructed in the aftermath of the Second World War. They therefore risk jeopardizing both American and democratic aspirations by repelling Republican interest in bipartisan cooperation in international affairs.
If we are to engage truly and fully with a discussion of rights and liberties in the United States, we must consider the rights of citizens to help determine where their wealth is utilized.
As much as one may argue the right of bodily autonomy, another may argue the role of religious liberty in the conduct of the fruits of their labor. Thus, in order to protect the rights of all Americans, tax dollars must remain withheld from such divisive procedures when not vital, both at home and abroad.
On September 25, 1977, 27-year-old Rosie Jimenez of McAllen, Texas was forced to choose between her education and her financial autonomy .
In attempting to give up neither, she was forced to give up both. Jimenez, an aspiring special education teacher, had become pregnant and feared that she would not be able to financially support a child while attending college.
Jimenez had $700 to her name but she planned to spend this money on her tuition, leaving her unable to afford a safe abortion. Thus, she opted to have an unlicensed midwife induce a miscarriage, from which she contracted a bacterial infection that spread to her heart, leading to her death a week later.
Had she become pregnant two months earlier, Rosie Jimenez would not have met this fate.
This is because her decision to terminate her pregnancy came shortly after the enactment of the Hyde Amendment.
As she was a Medicaid recipient, Jimenez’s abortion would have been one of the approximately 300,000 a year subsidized by the program prior to the Hyde Amendment’s passage.
Instead, she became one of the over one million American women who has lost abortion access due to economic constraints since the Hyde Amendment was first implemented.
It is an unavoidable truth that legal barriers to abortion beget illegal and unsafe abortions. Less than a decade prior to the Roe decision, deaths due to illegal abortions constituted almost almost one in five pregnancy-related deaths by 1965.
Although the Hyde Amendment — like the Helms Amendment — does not put explicit legal restrictions on the practice of abortion, its impact is not much different from that of the abortion bans of the pre- and post-Roe eras.
By preventing Medicaid funding for abortion, the Hyde Amendment therefore creates a near-impenetrable barrier to abortion for low-income individuals, who most often seek abortions.
A frequent argument posed in favor of the Hyde and Helms Amendments holds that those with a moral objection to abortion should be able to know that their tax dollars will not be used to fund a procedure they disagree with.
Indeed, I recognize the legitimate moral quandary that accompanies the abortion debate.
That being said, the Hyde and Helms Amendments have created an even larger tax burden than those that they purportedly alleviate.
In Michigan, as many as 5,800 excess births are estimated to have occurred as a result of financial barriers imposed by the Hyde Amendment.
Medicaid-covered costs associated with these births have collectively cost taxpayers over $63 million , compared to the $7 million that such a number of abortions would have most likely cost.
This is only in one state and does not even include costs associated with childcare or hospitalization in the event of potential pregnancy complications or unsafe abortions.
Additionally, this number does not even come close to the greatest cost of abortion funding restrictions: the loss of life that often accompanies pregnancy complications and unsafe abortions. The Hyde and Helms Amendments may be well-intentioned, in that they absolve opponents of abortion of the guilt of funding a practice they find immoral. However, if these restrictions continue to exist, then the tax revenue of abortion opponents, as well as plenty more Americans, will instead be used to bury fellow citizens like Rosie Jimenez.