By H. Harrison Coleman IV
For the first time in United States history, ever since abortion became a topic of contention, both a majority of Congress and the president are pro-choice.
President Joe Biden has long been a supporter of abortion rights—he campaigned on a position of codifying the Roe vs. Wade decision into law, a position that has earned him some blowback from Republicans. Biden had, throughout the earlier stages of his career as a senator, disapproved of the Supreme Court ruling. By the time of his vice presidency under Barack Obama, however, he had changed his tune—In a 2012 debate, Biden stated that he wished to keep his personal beliefs out of his politics and came out in support of Roe.
As for Congress, the debate had been quite one-sided until recently. From the year when Roe was decided until the midterm elections of 2018, the House of Representatives was solidly anti-abortion, with Republicans and Democrats generally uniting in opposition to the practice. The blue-wave midterm elections of 2018, however, proved to be enough for the pro-choice faction to defeat their older predecessors. Even with the thirteen Republican pickups in the House of Representatives in 2020, the House retains a Democratic, pro-choice majority.
The Senate is a bit more varied. Democrats have slim control of the upper chamber of Congress, with Democrats controlling 50 seats and the Republicans controlling the other 50 (Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris has tie-breaking powers, giving the Democrats the power of the Senate majority), but the pro-choice vote is in the clear majority.
Most Senate Democrats are pro-choice, with the exceptions of Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Bob Casey (D-PA), who have opposed abortion rights. On the Republican side, Senators Susan Collins (R-ME), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) are considered pro-choice. This negates the possibility of pro-choice legislation having to go for a tie-breaking vote to Vice President Kamala Harris, who herself is pro-choice.
With this historic pro-choice majority in the US government, it remains to be seen what sort of legislation may be passed. One target for the pro-choice crowd is the Hyde Amendment, which is legislation that has been added onto every annual funding bill for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The Hyde Amendment, named after pro-life Congressman Henry Hyde, bars the federal government from funding abortions except in a few specific cases. This means that people on Medicaid, a federal health program, are barred from abortion services.
Hyde Amendments, which have been added onto every HHS funding bill since 1976, originally only allowed for federal abortion funding in the cases where the woman’s life would be seriously jeopardized if the fetus was carried to term. In the 1990s, the Hyde Amendment’s restrictions weakened, allowing for federal funds to be allowed in the cases of rape or incest.
The Democratic Party’s division regarding the Hyde Amendment is similar to its previous splits—once prominent, now basically nonexistent. The Democratic presidents who had ruled since the Hyde Amendment was first added—Carter, Clinton, and Obama—were unable to kill their Hyde Amendments due to the split nature of the Democratic Party. Repealing the Hyde Amendment was only added to the Democratic Party platform in 2016. In fact, the 2010 passage of the Affordable Care Act under President Barack Obama was very nearly derailed by pro-life Democrats.
Because the Hyde Amendment is not permanent and relies on yearly renewals, the new pro-choice majority on Congress can simply choose to not renew it. 2020 was the last year that the Hyde Amendment passed Congress and was renewed for one more year by Former President Trump, and it could very well have been the last time. This is already beginning—the Pro-Choice Caucus, an organization of Congresspeople dedicated to the preservation and expansion of abortion rights, has already begun to push for the end of the Hyde Amendment, along with other legislative restrictions.
President Biden has already spoken against the Hyde Amendment, promising to repeal it, reversing his earlier pro-Hyde beliefs. Biden has already proven himself to be an ally to the pro-choice movement, signing executive orders and presidential memoranda his first week in office to make abortions more accessible and lift the Trump administration’s ban on federal funding for charities that offer abortions and reproductive education overseas.
Moreover, this new pro-choice majority moves another one of Biden’s promises closer to reality—the possibility of codifying Roe vs Wade into federal law. Roe, as it stands, is only a Supreme Court ruling and one that is subject to being struck down by the Supreme Court (however unlikely that may be). Codifying Roe would mean that even if the court case were struck down, women would still be able to get abortions as they are now, as their freedom to do so would be enshrined in federal legislation. Though no such legislation to do so has been introduced in this session of Congress, one example is the Women’s Health Protection Act, a proposed 2019 bill that would essentially code the protections of Roe into federal law.