This week as we raise awareness about the Hyde Amendment and the millions of women who face monumental barriers to abortion access because of how they get their health insurance, it’s important to remember why the United States moved to legalize abortion in the first place.
In the 1950s and 1960s rates of illegal or self-induced abortions ranged from 200,000 to 1.2 million per year. Just as it is today, women of means had greater access to contraception and greater ability to travel or pay private doctors to terminate a pregnancy. It has always been low-income women, and disproportionately women of color, who have suffered the most.
A 1960s study of low-income women in New York City found that one in ten had attempted to terminate a pregnancy. While one-in-four childbirth related deaths among white women were caused by an abortion, the rate skyrocketed to half of all childbirth related deaths among non-white and Puerto Rican women.
In 1962, 1,600 women were admitted to Harlem Hospital Center in New York City for botched abortions, nearly 1 per 42 deliveries. At the University of Southern California Los Angeles County Medical Center, there was one admission for incomplete abortions per 14 deliveries. In 1965 around 200 women were reported to have died from an illegal abortion, though the actual number is believed to be much higher.
By the time the Supreme Court guaranteed women the constitutional right to abortion in the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, 17 states had already begun allowing legal abortions in some reviewed cases. However, many of these cases required that the woman have a long standing relationship with a physician who could testify on her behalf, a relationship that was only available to women of means.
Wealthy women would travel to England where the approval of only two physicians was needed to get an abortion. By the late 1960s, New York had relatively loose abortion restrictions and in 1972 alone, 100,000 women traveled out-of-state to New York City to obtain an abortion.
Today, restrictions on abortion access, such as the Hyde Amendment, disproportionately target low-income women of color, who are both more likely to qualify for government insurance programs and more likely to experience an unintended pregnancy. The Hyde Amendment forces one in four low-income women seeking to terminate a pregnancy to carry to term because of the burdensome out-of-pocket costs.