In a sharp break with long-standing congressional policy, the “COVID-relief” bill signed into law by President Biden last week lacked language prohibiting federal funding of elective abortion.
The $1.9 trillion package is quite slushy, and it includes various pots of money that could be used to directly fund abortion. For example, there’s an extra $8.5 billion in a “provider relief fund” that incoming HHS secretary Xavier Becerra could use to legally provide direct federal funding of elective abortions. Elsewhere in the package there are hundreds of billions of dollars in bailouts to state and local governments, along with hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid. The Hyde amendment, which bans federal funding of elective abortion, was applied to each of these funding streams in the COVID-relief bills enacted last year.
The lack of the Hyde amendment in this year’s COVID-relief bill is a consequence of unified Democratic control of government as well as the annihilation of the pro-life Democratic caucus. In the House, an amendment to apply the Hyde amendment to the entire COVID bill was killed off in committee, and not a single Democratic member made an issue of it. In the Senate, a majority actually supported the Hyde amendment: Democratic senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Bob Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania, and Tim Kaine of Virginia joined all Senate Republicans in favor of an amendment effectively applying the Hyde amendment to much of the bill, but the Senate parliamentarian ruled that the amendment was subject to a 60-vote threshold. (A reconciliation bill allows the Senate to pass some legislation by a simple majority.) Rather than insist that the problematic funding be stripped from the reconciliation bill and dealt with in the appropriations process (which is subject to 60 votes), Manchin, Casey, and Kaine all voted for final passage of the bill as it was written.
The COVID-relief bill’s funding of abortion is also a reminder that the pro-life cause paid a steep price when Illinois congressman Dan Lipinski, the last stalwart pro-life Democrat in Congress, was purged from the party during a primary in 2020.
Without a consistent and committed pro-life voice in the Democratic Party, “it just makes it much easier for these issues to be sort of kept out of the public eye,” Lipinski says in an interview with National Review.
While the COVID-relief bill’s funding for foreign aid, health-care providers, and state and local governments does not explicitly earmark funds for abortion, Lipinski thinks the bill will directly pay for it. “I think the money is going to get there. I think the money is going to go to abortion,” he says, while adding that it might not be used that way “right at the beginning.”
“There’s people who want to use it that way, and so I think it will.”
While the new COVID bill’s passage was a serious blow to the pro-life cause, there are still bigger fights over taxpayer-funding of abortion on the horizon. Lipinski thinks it is possible for pro-lifers to win them.
“In the $1.9 trillion COVID-relief bill, everyone hears ‘COVID relief.’ Everyone hears ‘$1,400 check,’ and it’s very popular,” he says. “Even though it’s a lot of money, even though it sets somewhat of a precedent — COVID relief is something unique.”
The big questions looming on the horizon are whether Congress will directly fund abortion in the Medicaid program and in a new public-option for health insurance. “If there is a public option that didn’t have the Hyde protections, that would be very significant. If you get a public option, it’s just going to grow,” says Lipinski. “I’d hope there’d be more focused attention on it and the issue of applying Hyde language to it.” He thinks it’s likely that budget-reconciliation rules will not allow the Senate to directly fund abortion in the Medicaid program, but that’s not entirely clear: “What I’ve read suggests that it cannot be done, but I think there will be a lot of efforts made like never before to push the boundaries of reconciliation.”
The last time Democrats had unified control of Congress and the White House, they also expanded taxpayer-funding of abortion. In 2009, Congress allotted tax dollars for elective abortions in the District of Columbia — a policy that was reversed shortly after Republicans took back the House in 2010. The next blow to the Hyde amendment occurred in the spring of 2010, when Democrats passed Obamacare. After a big fight that nearly sunk the bill, the final compromise hashed out among Senate Democrats allowed individual states to pass a law applying the Hyde amendment to their own exchanges, but otherwise state exchanges included elective abortion coverage by default. Lipinski was the only Democrat who voted for Obamacare when it included the full Hyde protections but against it when it didn’t.
In 2021, unified Democratic control of government has already meant more taxpayer funding of abortion. The only question that remains is how much more that will be. And the answer matters quite a lot. The prohibition on federal funding of elective abortion for Medicaid recipients is estimated to have saved more than 50,000 human lives each year since it was first enacted in the late 1970s. As bad as pro-life advocates think the COVID bill was, the next reconciliation bill could be far worse.
Just how bad it is from a pro-life perspective will depend somewhat on what exactly the Senate parliamentarian will allow, how far Democratic leadership wants to push the issue, and whether West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin finally draws a red-line on the issue.