House’s Two Major Spending Bills Omit Long-Standing Abortion Restrictions—But Senate Battle Remains

Reproductive rights champions in the House finally removed regressive anti-choice policies that disproportionately harm women, girls, LGBTQ people and others who already face systemic barriers to equal health care, and which polls show are not supported by a majority of U.S. voters.

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Outside the Supreme Court in D.C. after the June 2016 decision on Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, a Texas abortion admitting privileges case. (Adam Fagen / Flickr)

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed two major spending bills—a package of federal appropriations authorizations and a foreign aid appropriations bill—which do not include decades-old discriminatory reproductive rights prohibitions that have prevented women, especially women of color, from exercising their basic sexual and reproductive health rights in the U.S. and abroad.

The two bills, passed largely along party lines, will face a difficult path in the evenly-split Senate and stand in stark contrast to the recent rash of state-level abortion restrictions and the increasing possibility that the Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade.

House ‘Minibus’ Bill Excludes Hyde, Weldon, Dornan and Smith Amendments

On July 29, the House passed a “minibus” spending bill (H.R. 4502) authorizing funds for various federal government departments, including Health and Human Services, Labor, Education, Transportation, Veterans Affairs, and the Interior, in a 219–208 vote. Multiple long-standing anti-choice restrictions, passed annually as riders to such spending measures, did not make it into the bill, despite attempts to include them from Republican lawmakers.

These discriminatory and harmful reproductive rights restrictions, which disproportionately affect people of color, include:

  • the 46-year-old Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funds—including Medicaid- from paying for abortions except in the limited cases of rape, incest and life endangerment;
  • the Weldon Amendment, which since 2005 has provided a “conscience” exemption from providing abortions for individuals and organizations that receive federal funding;
  • the Dornan Amendment, a 1988 measure prohibiting federal funds from paying for elective abortions in the District of Columbia; and
  • the Smith Amendment, first passed in 1984, that bars federal employee health plans from paying for abortions.

SFOPs Bill Omits Helms Amendment and Other Restrictions for First Time in Decades

President Biden reversed his long-standing support for the Hyde Amendment and submitted a proposed budget that did not include the restriction.

Similarly, on July 28, the House passed, by a vote of 217–212, the State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs (SFOPs) appropriations bill (H.R. 4373) which also, for the first time in decades, omitted onerous reproductive rights restrictions that prohibited women living in countries receiving U.S. foreign aid from receiving a full range of reproductive services, including abortions.

In a major victory for reproductive rights, the SFOPs bill, for the first time since 1973, did not include the Helms Amendment, named after the late Republican Senator Jesse Helms, which prohibits U.S. foreign assistance funds from being used for abortion “as a method of family planning.”

The Helms language, which remained in Biden’s budget request, has been interpreted over-broadly by successive presidential administrations as a near-total ban on provision or even discussion of abortion, forcing providers to choose between offering a full range of reproductive services and receiving U.S. foreign aid, thereby limiting the reproductive freedom and critical health care services of women worldwide. Since the United States is the world’s largest donor to international family planning and reproductive and maternal health programs, studies have shown that removing the Helms Amendment would vastly decrease the number of unsafe abortions and prevent thousands of maternal deaths.   

The SFOPs bill also included a provision preventing any president from re-imposing the “global gag rule,” also known as the Mexico City Policy, which was introduced by President Reagan at the second International Conference on Population in 1984. This executive action forces foreign organizations that receive U.S. aid to agree that they will “neither perform nor actively promote abortion as a method of family planning”—even using non-US funds. Democratic presidents, including President Biden, have removed the global gag rule and Republican presidents have imposed it, including President Trump who greatly expanded its reach by including all U.S. global health assistance ($8.8 billion), not just family planning assistance ($575 million).

Additional commitments to support sexual and reproductive health rights abroad in the SFOPs bill include a lifting of the ban on abortion coverage for Peace Corps volunteers, doubling funding for the United Nations Population Fund and increasing bilateral funding for family planning services.

Advocates praised reproductive rights champions in the House for finally removing these regressive anti-choice policies which have disproportionately harmed women, girls, LGBTQ people and others who already face systemic barriers to equal health care, and which polls show are not supported by a majority of U.S. voters.

Reproductive Advocates Made This Happen

The landmark votes relied on the leadership of long-standing reproductive rights champions, such as Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who first introduced the Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance Act in 2015 to permanently repeal the Hyde Amendment, and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), the chair of the House Appropriations Committee. Lee has called the Hyde Amendment an issue of racial and economic justice since Black and Hispanic women are twice as likely to rely on Medicaid for health coverage as white and Asian women, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Studies show that 25 percent of pregnant women who would have had Medicaid-funded abortions are forced to continue unwanted pregnancies, which contributes to increased poverty rates.

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Rep. Barbara Lee reads names of AIDS victims during at the Library of Congress. In July, she successfully brought a foreign aid bill to the House floor and passed it as a freestanding bill for the first time in more than a decade. (Shawn Miller / Library of Congress)

Another long-time reproductive rights advocate, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), took similar action to repeal permanently the Helms Amendment when she introduced the Abortion is Healthcare Everywhere Act last year. That bill, with 121 cosponsors, proposed proactive language to clarify that Congress intends U.S. foreign aid to fund comprehensive reproductive healthcare information and services, including abortion.  

Destiny Lopez, co-president of reproductive justice organization All* Above All, highlighted the women of color-led initiative to repeal the Hyde Amendment and other racist coverage bans that are “detrimental … to folks of color who are working to make ends meet.”

In a statement regarding the passage of the SFOPs bill, Christian LoBue, chief campaigns and advocacy officer of NARAL Pro-Choice America, expressed gratitude for congressional leaders’ commitment to overturning decades-long attempts to push “comprehensive reproductive healthcare out of reach for people and communities who already have limited access to the care they need” overseas.

Opposition and the Long Road Ahead

Anti-reproductive rights advocates criticized the House actions as an “injustice” obliterating decades of “bipartisan cooperation” to protect “preborn” lives. In a joint statement, Cardinal Dolan and Archbishop Naumann of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops claimed that the Hyde Amendment had “saved at least 2.4 million lives,” referring to the number of pregnancies that women who rely on federal health benefits have been forced to carry to term.

During negotiations, Republicans attempted and failed to restore the amendments and no Republicans voted for the bills on the House floor. Rep. Chris Smith (D-N.J.), a long-time abortion opponent, was “confident” that Senate appropriations bills would reinstate the restrictions, and one Democrat, Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), has expressed support for including abortion restrictions in the Senate bills. Separately, Smith has also introduced, along with 166 co-sponsors, the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortions Act (H.R. 18) which would make the Hyde Amendment and other restrictions permanent.

The even Democrat-Republican split in the Senate and the potential Republican filibuster, along with continued pressure from anti-choice activists portend a fierce uphill Senate battle. In fact, anti-choice senators as far back as January 2021 pledged to support Hyde at all costs.

2021: A Record-Setting Year for Abortion Restrictions and Roe Under Attack

Congressional support for reproductive rights is crucial given rapidly-proliferating state-level abortion restrictions; in 2021 state legislative sessions are on track to impose more than in any other year. These limitations run the gamut from outright bans to targeted restrictions against abortion providers, from mandatory ultrasounds and waiting periods to “personhood” for fetus measures. Texas recently passed a law prohibiting abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, usually at six weeks, and deputizing citizens to sue to enforce the law. While a group has already filed suit challenging the law, its passage warns of an even-grimmer future abortion dystopia.

Roe v. Wade, which since 1973 has provided a constitutional imprimatur for safe and legal abortion, is also under unprecedented attack. In May, the Supreme Court agreed to hear in its fall term Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, an appeal by the State of Mississippi that specifically asks the Supreme Court to eliminate a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion by overturning Roe v. Wade. Anti-abortion lawmakers have joined in urging the Supreme Court to find Roe v. Wade unconstitutional, and a group of anti-choice governors filed a brief in support of petitioners, asking that each state be able to regulate abortion access.

While the House passage of spending bills free of onerous abortion restriction is cause for celebration, the victory is likely to be short-lived as anti-abortion senators and advocates will marshal their considerable forces to reinsert the provisions when the Senate takes up spending measures over the next few months. But if nothing else, the U.S. is one step closer to non-discriminatory reproductive health care that allows its citizens to exercise, freely and without fear, basic sexual and reproductive health rights.

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About

Michelle Onello is a human rights lawyer and senior counsel at the Global Justice Center, a non-profit advocating for gender equality and reproductive rights in international law, and a signatory of the letter urging President Biden to repeal the Helms Amendment.