When things go wrong, there needs to be accountability. I don’t mean assigning blame or firing people necessarily. That can be good momentary catharsis, but blame is only part of the equation when it comes to finding solutions. The more important part of accountability is a sober assessment of mistakes and failures that can be corrected in the future.
Now that a year has passed, it’s a good time for such an accounting regarding abortion rights. Many who support abortion rights are quick to blame Republicans and conservatives for waging a decades-long campaign to overturn Roe vs. Wade. They’re right to do so, but singularly focusing on that lets Democrats off the hook too easily for their inability, and in some cases unwillingness, to protect the right to abortion.
Every Democratic president since the Roe v. Wade decision has had at least two years of unified government – that is, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency. A period of unified government is the best time for a political party to enact its most challenging policy proposals.
President Obama used his unified government to pass Obamacare; President Trump passed a tax reform bill; and President Biden passed an infrastructure bill. These examples show that there are moments in government where it’s possible to pass sweeping laws. At no point in the last 50 years have Democrats used their best opportunities to enshrine abortion rights in federal law. Generously, perhaps they thought that Roe was enough. Whatever the reason, passing federal abortion rights legislation has not been a priority for Democrats.
But maybe it’s not fair to hold Democrats in Congress accountable for what they didn’t do. In that case, let’s look at what Democrats have done since 1973: they have consistently supported budget legislation that included the Hyde Amendment. Passed in 1976, the Hyde Amendment prevents federal funds from being used to pay for abortions, except in cases of rape, incest, or when the mother’s life is in danger.
This is not a legacy legislative quirk that’s magically endured for 50 years. It had to be reauthorized every single year in order to remain in effect. That means not only did unified Democratic governments fail to act to protect abortion from the very beginning of legal access to abortion in theory, but Democrats also failed to remove the Hyde Amendment from their budgets as a tradeoff to get their spending priorities passed, even when they had the numbers to do so in both chambers of Congress.
It wasn’t until very recently that the status quo showed a hint of change. Hillary Clinton was the first Democratic presidential candidate to make removing the Hyde Amendment a part of their platform in 2016. President Biden, after a career of voting for the amendment, came around to stating publicly that he wanted to remove it in 2020. Connecticut’s own Rosa DeLauro attempted to remove Hyde Amendment language from the appropriations bill in 2022, but was unsuccessful.
With this history of legislative inaction and hostility to abortion access, it’s hard not to look askance at the political theater of Biden and other Democrats lamenting the overturning of Roe v. Wade. I try to temper my cynicism these days, but it often feels like the battle over abortion rights is a political juicer, used to squeeze as much outrage and money out of constituents as possible. Already the fundraising appeals are flying, breathlessly declaring how terrible the situation is today.
Yes, it is terrible. And the reality is that Democrats, the alleged allies of the right to choose, have helped to get us here. States like Connecticut have shown over the years that it’s possible to pass laws to protect abortion rights, and then go even further to expand access. There is no excuse for not at least trying to do the same thing federally, and there’s certainly no way to explain how Democrats go along with Hyde every year except that they are saying one thing about abortion while doing another. Keep that in mind when you get that next fundraising email.