On the last day of August, my esteemed op-ed editor handed me a letter from Mr. James D. Miller of Fayette. “A story idea,” my editor said. I really love story ideas. Having something to write about (or photograph, as the case may be) is more than half the battle.
Mr. Miller had written the Missourian, confused about the reportage of a comment by Sen. Claire McCaskill at an Aug. 26 town hall meeting in Jefferson City about health care. Missourian reporter Michael Sewall wrote: “McCaskill also tried to dispel the rumor that abortion would be covered under the new health plan. She said that would be impossible unless an amendment was inserted to repeal the black-letter law, which prohibits the federal government from funding abortion.”
Thus, Mr. Miller wrote in his letter, “What is the ‘black letter law’? When I called Sen. McCaskill’s Washington, D.C., office … the staffer I talked to did not know what this ‘black letter law’ is.”
As far as I can tell, this is a case of jargon making it into a story without explanation. A “black letter law” is a law that is already on the books — a law that already exists and is generally well known. It turns out that Sen. McCaskill was really talking about the Hyde Amendment at the Aug. 26 town hall meeting. I called Sen. McCaskill's office in Washington, and a staffer confirmed that the black letter law she referred to was indeed the Hyde Amendment.
Congress first passed the Hyde Amendment in 1976 as a legislative response to Roe v. Wade, which was handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973. Nestled into the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2008 (the current incarnation), it forbids the federal government from funding abortions (with some exceptions for rape, incest and the mother's health). It’s long, but here are the important bits:
- SEC. 507 (a) None of the funds appropriated in this Act, and none of the funds in any trust fund to which funds are appropriated in this Act, shall be expended for any abortion.
- (b) None of the funds appropriated in this Act, and none of the funds in any trust fund to which funds are appropriated in this Act, shall be expended for health benefits coverage that includes coverage of abortion.
Which means, in effect, that neither Medicare nor health insurance for federal employees and military personnel paid for by the federal government can cover abortions. In 1993, the language was added to the law to allow funding of abortions in the case of rape, incest or when the mother’s health was at risk.
In 1980, the Supreme Court decided in Harris v. McRae that the ban on federal funding of abortions was constitutional. Justice Potter Stewart wrote: “It does not follow that a woman's freedom of choice carries with it a constitutional entitlement to the financial resources to avail herself of the full range of protected choices. … The Hyde Amendment … places no governmental obstacle in the path of a woman who chooses to terminate her pregnancy.”
Justice Stewart, I respectfully disagree.
First, think of other rights that we have under the Constitution: freedom of speech, for example. In 2007, the city of Columbia spent almost $40,000 on security to protect members of the National Socialist Movement (aka neo-Nazis) while they held a 45-minute rally downtown. That’s public, taxpayer money. Forty thousand dollars is an absurd amount of money spent to protect the speech of very few people with some ugly, vile views.
I hate what they say. But they have the right to say it, and I’ll pay to protect their rights to say whatever hateful poison they want to spew.
Roe v. Wade said women have the constitutional right to choose an abortion. It’s controversial, and it wasn’t as explicitly stated as freedom of speech, but it is unfair to deny public money to protect this right.
Furthermore, the Hyde Amendment punishes women who can’t afford to choose to terminate a pregnancy. The procedure in the first trimester can cost between $350 and $900, according to Planned Parenthood. This can be prohibitively expensive.
But, I defer to Justice Thurgood Marshall, who said it best in his Harris v. McRae dissent: “The Court's opinion studiously avoids recognizing the undeniable fact that for women eligible for Medicaid — poor women — denial of a Medicaid-funded abortion is equivalent to denial of legal abortion altogether. … If abortion is medically necessary and a funded abortion is unavailable, they must resort to back-alley butchers, attempt to induce an abortion themselves by crude and dangerous methods, or suffer the serious medical consequences of attempting to carry the fetus to term. … The Court's decision today marks a retreat from Roe v. Wade and represents a cruel blow to the most powerless members of our society. I dissent.”
Erin K. O'Neill is a former assistant director of photography and current page designer for the Missourian. She is a master's degree candidate at the Missouri School of Journalism, and a teaching assistant for the communications law class.