When legislators want to avoid a fight on a controversial measure, they’ll often bury it in the kind of bill where you would least expect to find it. That’s exactly what happened in the U.S. House of Representatives Wednesday. A subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee added an anti-choice measure limiting the rights of women who live in Washington, D.C. to a general appropriations bill for Fiscal Year (FY) 2014.
The measure—a rider to the general spending bill—would prevent the District of Columbia, using its own locally collected tax revenues, from providing abortions for low-income women through Medicaid, an option that is available to any state that wishes to provide such services. But because Congress has special jurisdictional powers over D.C., it is able to force its will on District residents, despite the fact that D.C. citizens are allowed no voting representative in Congress.
“What happened to individual choices?” asked Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), during the meeting of the Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee. “Anti-choice Republicans continuing to wage their war on women’s health want government just small enough to fit under the bedroom door and into your private life.”
Lowey is the ranking member of the full Appropriations Committee.
Throughout the hearing, activists tweeted pro-choice messages with the hashtags #WeAreDC and #StandWithDCWomen—a social media campaign that will continue as the bill moves to consideration for the full committee.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), who represents D.C. in Congress, issued a statement saying that she was “resolute” in trying to get the anti-choice rider removed from the final appropriations bill. Though often addressed as “Congresswoman,” Holmes Norton has no floor vote and in 2011 was stripped of her previous power to cast votes in the Committee of the Whole because the Republican leadership deemed it so. At an event last month, Holmes Norton referred to Republicans taking aim at her district as “schoolyard bullies.” (Additional measures targeting D.C. in the subcommittee’s mark-up would slash funding for the District’s HIV-prevention programs, a tuition grant program, and funding for the Sewer and Water Authority.)
Although the ban on Medicaid abortion funding is nothing new—it was first implemented in 1989—it is receiving renewed attention as Republican politicians at both the federal and state levels appear to be making anti-choice measures the centerpiece of their legislative agenda, passing a 20-week ban in the House of Representatives last month and numerous other bans and restrictions in Ohio and Wisconsin, with highly restrictive measures pending in the Texas and North Carolina legislatures.
Because of the longstanding prohibition on public funding for abortion in the District, the D.C. Abortion Fund (DCAF) exists to help poor women obtain the reproductive health care they need. “Dozens of women call us each day asking for help to pay for abortion care because Medicaid cannot pay for it,” DCAF President Val Vilott told RH Reality Check in a written statement. “The D.C. Medicaid ban is shameful; women in the District are just as deserving of access to health care as women anywhere else in the country.”
Kimberly Inez McGuire, associate director of government relations and public affairs for the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, is one of the activists behind the #WeAreDC campaign. “As a Latina and a D.C. resident, I am disappointed that some members of Congress continue their efforts to deny a woman access to abortion care based simply on where she lives and how much money is in her pocket,” McGuire told RH Reality Check. “Women of D.C. deserve better, and we’re watching today’s mark-up very closely.” (Read McGuire’s recent commentary for RH Reality Check, “Independence Day Rings Hollow for D.C. Women,” here.)
Correction: A version of this article incorrectly stated that Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton was stripped of her ability to vote in committee in 2011. She was instead stripped of her ability to vote in the Committee of the Whole. We regret the error.