WASHINGTON ― House Republicans held a hearing Friday on what they called the “ultimate civil right” in the United States ― the right of a fetus to be born.
But Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) quickly turned the anti-abortion panel on its head ― and thrilled intersectional feminists everywhere ― when he reminded his GOP colleagues of the real civil rights issue at play: the fact that men have been trying to control women’s bodies, and particularly women of color, “since the days of slavery.”
“Controlling women’s reproductive processes has been something that men have done for years, or tried to do,” Cohen said, citing feminist icon Gloria Steinem. “They’ve tried to control women, and they’ve tried to control people of different races and people of different sexual orientations because they liked the power they had and wanted to keep it that way. And women since the days of slavery were very much encouraged to have children, because that was good, because you needed lots of more property to bring the crops to make the money.”
Even when the mechanization of agriculture replaced the need for more slaves, Cohen continued, “the people at the top, the people who owned the land and had the controls... wanted to continue to control women’s reproductive systems.”
The Judiciary Committee hearing, which Republicans titled “The Ultimate Civil Right: Examining the Hyde Amendment and the Born Alive Infants Protection Act,” looked at a pair of longstanding anti-abortion policies. One, a law George W. Bush signed in 2002, gives legal protection to babies born alive during an abortion attempt. The other, the longstanding Hyde Amendment, which turns 40 next week, prohibits federal programs like Medicaid from covering abortion care for mostly poor and uninsured women.
The Hyde Amendment is not a permanent law, but Republicans routinely attach it to appropriations bills as a policy rider.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said she plans to abandon it if she is elected, because it’s a discriminatory policy that makes it “harder for low-income women to exercise their full rights.”
Cohen elaborated on that effect of Hyde during the hearing.
“Simply put, the opponents of the right to choose cannot get what they really want, which is to repeal Roe [v. Wade] outright, so instead they’ve chosen to deny the right as a practical matter to poor women and women of color,” he said.
Republicans at the hearing touted the amendment, which they say has financially prevented more than a million women from being able to access abortion since 1976. “One in nine people born under Medicaid in a state that has no Medicaid funded abortion program was saved, thanks to the Hyde Amendment,” said the GOP’s witness, Genevieve Plaster, an anti-abortion policy expert.
Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) bluntly compared the amendment to a tax on cigarettes, because it prevents “conduct” that policymakers “don’t like.”
“If there’s something you don’t like as a policymaker ― cigarettes, say ― and you tax it, you’ll get less people to buy cigarettes,” he said. “If you subsidize something, you then get more of it.”
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) wondered aloud why abortion isn’t “being called genocide by the black community,” since women of color are far more likely to seek abortion care than white women.
The Democrats’ one witness, reproductive rights activist Kierra Johnson, explained that women of color and immigrant women are more likely to be poor, to face unintended pregnancy and to rely on Medicaid for health insurance. That’s what makes the Hyde Amendment a discriminatory policy, she said ― it creates a world where women with certain incomes and skin colors have an easier time accessing reproductive health care than everyone else.
“As a black woman, I am outraged that the morally bankrupt Hyde Amendment has been permitted to persist for so long,” she said. “It is a source of pain for many women and should be a source of shame for those who support it.”
“Each of us,” she added, “not just some of us, should be able to make our own decisions about pregnancy.”
CORRECTION: This article originally misquoted Cohen as saying that men have been “trolling women’s reproductive processes;” in fact, he said “controlling.”