Religious Liberty and Restoring Access to Abortion

Representative Henry Hyde of Chicago made his intentions clear in 1977 when he proposed a ban on funding abortion services with federal money. "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. Unfortunately, the only vehicle available is the...Medicaid bill." To this day, Hyde's amendment continues to deny coverage for abortion services to millions of women except in the most extreme circumstances, imposing his explicitly religious view of abortion on the entire country.

In response to Hyde, a new bill was introduced in July by Representatives Barbara Lee (D-CA), Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), and Diana DeGette (D-CO). The Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance, or the EACH Woman Act, takes a proactive stance to end federal bans on abortion coverage. This landmark legislation would ensure that every woman -- regardless of her income, insurance, or where she lives -- has coverage of abortion in order to make her own faith-informed decisions about her body, health, and future. One hundred members of the US House of Representatives have joined as co-sponsors.

Who are the women now affected by Hyde who would regain access to abortion services through the EACH Woman Act? First and foremost those most harmed by Hyde are women and families struggling to make ends meet and who obtain health care through the federal government. They are disproportionately people of color, and/or young, immigrants, or living in rural areas.

They can't afford to go around the system to get the care they need. They are enrolled in Medicaid or have health insurance as federal employees, Peace Corps volunteers, or military personnel. Some receive care from the Indian Health Service or are incarcerated in federal prisons -- in other words, millions of women across the country.

The All*Above All coalition, led by women of color, has taken the lead in organizing support for the EACH Woman Act with the backing of 36 women's health, women's rights, and justice advocacy organizations, including the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW). Regardless of one's beliefs about abortion, the law must reflect the principle that each woman is a moral agent entitled to follow her own personal faith beliefs when it comes to her health, including decisions surrounding pregnancy. And above all, she deserves safe, legal, and affordable access to the care she believes is necessary and best in her situation.

Needless to say, there are many, many women, and many Jews among them, who think that an analysis of sacred texts is not the basis for making public policy. Yet for decades, explicit religious beliefs have plainly buttressed votes in Congress to make abortion more difficult to access. Many in Congress have gone further -- holding up the recent nominee for US Attorney General, a trafficking bill as well as other key legislation, and just last month, threatening a government shutdown over funding Planned Parenthood because that organization provides privately funded abortions.

Even President Obama, who supports Roe v. Wade, has incorporated Hyde into every federal budget submitted to Congress in his now nearly seven years in office, asserting that a general consensus exists against using government funds for abortion. But the most recent polls disagree, showing that 86 percent of voters believe -- regardless of their views on abortion -- that politicians "should not be allowed to deny a woman's health coverage because she is poor." President Obama has gone about as far as any president in support of a woman's right to decide for herself whether to end a pregnancy. But his stance nevertheless falls far short, in effect still denying moral agency to those women who receive health care through the federal government and deferring to the religious views of some over all others.

Passing the EACH Woman Act may well take years to achieve. But we must take the first step and grow our movement of advocates and legislators who will stand up for this bill. It promises not only true reproductive freedom, but a victory for religious liberty and our pluralistic democracy -- as public policy must not cater to only one faith-based view of abortion. In his majority opinion in Roe v Wade, Justice Blackmun acknowledged "the sensitive and emotional nature of the abortion controversy" when resolving the issue "by constitutional measurement, free of emotion and of predilection." His is the standard we seek to restore today.