The Democratic Party has taken the unprecedented step of including language in its platform calling for the repeal of a law that bars federal dollars from paying directly for abortions.
Known as the Hyde Amendment, the law for decades has had bipartisan support, including among those who identify as pro-choice, because it is attached for approval to annual federal spending bills. It makes exceptions in the cases of rape, incest or threat to the life of the mother.
Under pressure from pro-choice lawmakers in his own party, President Obama signed an executive order in 2010 affirming that the Hyde Amendment would apply to his signature health care initiative.
But a draft of the Democratic platform that was approved over the weekend reads in part: “We will continue to oppose — and seek to overturn — federal and state laws and policies that impede a woman’s access to abortion, including by repealing the Hyde Amendment.”
“[I] didn’t think the Democratic Party could get any more extreme on the issue of abortion,” said Billy Valentine, director of government affairs for the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List. “But they are becoming more extreme. I would occasionally see some efforts from pro-abortion lobby groups talking about repealing Hyde, but it always seemed like it was fringe groups talking about it. I used to laugh it off just a few years ago, but all of a sudden it’s become mainstream.”
Meanwhile Monday, a subcommittee at the Republican National Convention approved language calling for public dollars to be divested from Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider. The provision, which has not been released to the public, will go before the full committee for adoption later this week.
“Planned Parenthood is specifically addressed in the platform coming out of the subcommittee,” said Mr. Valentine, who attended the meeting.
But Democratic opposition to the Hyde Amendment marks a shift in the party’s stance on abortion, said Clarke Forsythe, acting president for Americans United for Life Action.
Both leading Democratic presidential candidates, presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernard Sanders, railed against the Hyde Amendment in the primaries.
Although she previously had supported the amendment as a New York senator, Mrs. Clinton at a campaign rally earlier this year said the provision makes it “harder for low-income women to exercise their full rights.”
“Any right that requires you to take extraordinary measures to access it is no right at all,” she said.
Still, a Marist Poll released earlier this year found 68 percent of Americans oppose taxpayer funding for abortion, including 51 percent of respondents who identify as pro-choice.
Enacted in 1976 in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, the Hyde Amendment has served as a model for several states that have approved similar measures to prohibit local dollars from being used to procure abortions. It was named for its chief sponsor, Rep. Henry Hyde, Illinois Republican.
The amendment’s exact language has been tweaked over the years, but its intent to keep federal money from financing abortions has remained clear.
In 2009, doubts about whether the Hyde Amendment would apply to Mr. Obama’s Affordable Care Act prompted pro-life Reps. Bart Stupak, Michigan Democrat, and Joseph R. Pitts, Pennsylvania Republican, to propose an amendment to prohibit federal funds to cover the costs of any health insurance plan that includes abortion services.
The House approved the Stupak-Pitts Amendment, but the Senate did not, and Mr. Stupak and other pro-life lawmakers had vowed to oppose Obamacare until the president signed the executive order.
“The abortion industry has moved from ‘choice’ to coercion to cash,” Mr. Forsythe said, noting Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate, which requires employers to pay for birth control and other reproductive coverage in their health care plans.
Earlier this year, the Supreme Court declined to rule on the mandate and directed lower courts to revisit the issue.
“The only ‘choice’ that the abortion industry supports today is their choice to sell abortions and send taxpayers the bill,” Mr. Forsythe said in a statement.
The Democratic Party’s shifting stance on abortion can be traced in its platforms over the years.
In its 1996 platform, the party said it “respect[s] the individual conscience of each American on this difficult issue, and we welcome all our members to participate at every level of our party.”
That sentence also was included in the 2000 platform, but it stopped appearing in 2004.
The 2004 platform also affirmed the right to an abortion “regardless of [a woman’s] ability to pay,” a phrase that did not appear in the prior platforms but has appeared in every one since.
Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, said the Democratic Party’s proposed 2016 platform is “unrecognizable compared to 20 years ago.”
She called on pro-life Democrats, including Sens. Robert P. Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Tim Kaine of Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, to speak out against the provision.
“The 2016 platform is dramatically out of step with the position previously taken by several Democratic senators, including Tim Kaine, currently being considered as Hillary Clinton’s running mate,” Ms. Dannenfelser said in a statement.
Sen. Joe Manchin III, a pro-life Democrat from West Virginia, took her up on that offer. He called the party’s new platform on abortion “crazy.”
“That’s crazy,” Mr. Manchin told The Weekly Standard last week. “It’s something that I know most of the Democrats in West Virginia and most West Virginians would not agree with. I don’t either.”
The constitutionality of the Hyde Amendment has been upheld by the Supreme Court, but Mr. Valentine said the recent decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt has “emboldened” the pro-choice movement to challenge other restrictions on abortion.
That decision, issued June 27, struck down a pair of Texas regulations holding abortion clinics to health standards similar to ambulatory surgical centers and requiring abortionists to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. The Court said the regulations imposed an “undue burden” on access to abortion.
Mr. Valentine said the pro-choice movement is “going on offense” in the wake of the decision.
“I think they’re reading the Texas court decision as an opportunity,” he said. “I think if Hillary were to win, and she were able to replace Justice Scalia with a judge who shares her views on abortion, they will work to repeal Hyde.”