Tuesday, June 1, 2021
By K.A. Dilday (June 1, 2021)
On Friday, President Joe Biden released a proposed budget for 2022. Reproductive rights advocates hailed it for the historic exclusion of the Hyde Amendment: It is the first White House budget in decades to exclude the 1976 Amendment prohibiting the use of federal funds for abortion.
The exclusion is largely symbolic: The Hyde Amendment can only be repealed by lawmakers, and Democrats who support repealing it don’t hold sufficient majority in the Senate to do so. But it is a turnaround for Biden who voted to pass the Amendment as a senator and continued to back it for many years. With this latest step, President Biden is signaling that his administration will support the right of reproductive freedom for all women.
Thus, some reproductive rights activists are cautiously optimistic despite the looming specter of the Supreme Court’s hearing next term of a case that could potentially eviscerate the protections of Roe v. Wade. But there is a group of women in the United States that has suffered disproportionately under the Hyde Amendment and therefore to whom symbolic gestures mean little.
Although all low-income women bear the weight of the Amendment’s restrictions as it affects recipients of the federal-state healthcare program Medicaid, non-elderly American Indian and American Native women use public health services at a higher rate than any other ethnicity according to the healthcare research foundation KFF.
While some states have a workaround for abortion services provided by Medicaid—using exclusively state funds rather than federal—many of the U.S. Indigenous population use the federally funded Indian Health Service (IHS) which operates hospitals and outpatient facilities in addition to providing other support services. Approximately 1.9 million American Indian and Alaska Native women living on or near reservations receive care at those facilities and through linked health service providers.
The Hyde Amendment did not technically apply to the Indian Health Services until 2008: As noted by Andie Netherland in the American Indian Law Review, “...the Hyde Amendment provided that ‘[n]one of the funds contained in [the] Act’ could be used for abortions, [but] the Amendment did not apply, at that time, to the funds allocated to the Indian Health Service through a different act.” In 2008, the Senate expanded the Hyde Amendment’s application to the Indian Health Service.
Despite its not being legally bound by the Hyde Amendment, the Indian Health Service adhered to it in years preceding 2008. A 2002 report by the Native American Women's Health Education Resource Center (NAWHERC) found that between 1981 and 2001, only 25 abortions had been performed by IHS units. The report also cites a 1996 memo from the IHS director clarifying that the IHS would only provide abortions in the case of rape, incest, or limited circumstances when the mother’s life was in danger, the three exceptions permitted under the Hyde Amendment that were pushed through in 1993 under the Clinton Administration.
Reproductive rights activists say that the difficulty of obtaining an exception under the Hyde Amendment is particularly hard on Native American women based on findings that Indigenous women are 2.5 times more likely to report experiencing sexual assault than other races, and one in three Native American women reports having been raped. And, the American Addiction Centers compiled data from the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health indicating that Indigenous Americans have the highest rates of alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, inhalant, and hallucinogen use disorders compared to other ethnic groups.
A recent federal case highlights the particular burden that these challenges and the Hyde Amendment’s restrictions to reproductive rights place on Indigenous women. In the precedent-setting United States v. Flute (2019), the Eighth Circuit reinstated an indictment dismissed by the District Court for South Dakota-Aberdeen against a young Native American woman for manslaughter, after prenatal drug use resulted in the death of her baby four hours after birth. As Eighth Circuit Judge Steven M. Colloton noted in his dissent: “According to the United States Attorney, the government has never before charged a mother with manslaughter based on prenatal neglect that causes the death of a child.”
Flute gave birth on the Lake Traverse Reservation of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Tribe, which is under federal jurisdiction. Her case was characterized by the Harvard Law Review as escalating “to the federal level the state judicial trend of using broad interpretations of statutes designed for other purposes to criminalize prenatal conduct.” As Judge Colloton also wrote in his dissent: "No federal statute enacted after 1909 has expanded the manslaughter statute to encompass a mother’s prenatal neglect." In an article about the Flute case in the most recent edition of the American Indian Law Review, Andie Netherland noted that pregnant Indigenous women who face addiction may face criminal prosecution for involuntary manslaughter “more frequently than non-Indian women due to the unavailability of abortion services within the Indian Health Service.”
For these reasons, Native-American reproductive rights activists say that even post Roe v. Wade, the immediacy of their fight for reproductive justice and self-determination never changed. A 2019 article in Indian Country Today noted “the new abortion laws don’t ever have to be implemented and the Supreme Court doesn’t have to overturn Roe to make abortion inaccessible for Native women; restrictions are nothing new. For Native women, the lack of access to abortions has been real for years.”
The looming loss of reproductive rights feared by many in the United States would not be a loss but a reiteration of the status quo for many Indigenous women. In the absence of real, tangible change, the symbolic exclusion of the Hyde Amendment does not give Indigenous women much cause for celebration.