Independence is also the target for Representative Henry Hyde, who since 1977 has sponsored legislation designed to deny abortions to women on Medicaid. Although the various Hyde amendments do not challenge a woman's constitutional right to abortion, they declare that any woman receiving government aid is in effect a ward of the state and can exercise her constitutional rights only at the state's discretion. Such rights are worthless. Freedom of choice is reserved for those who can pay for it.
Hyde's amendment this year was passed in the House by a 25-to-178 majority, which means that scores of Democrats ganged up with the usual anti-choice Republicans. But the yeas were only the proximate villains of the piece. The House Democratic leadership failed to make the issue a priority item. and President Clinton, who only weeks ago vowed to eradicate such discrimination, decided, once again, to husband his political capital instead of fighting the right.
But the buck doesn't stop there. The legislation was passed with only perfunctory opposition form the women's rights forces that had mobilized so brilliantly four years ago to defend Roe v. Wade. The last great effort was the election of choice-friendly Bill Clinton. He promised them everything and delivered brave words and some easy executive actions, most notably an order lifting the "gag rule" on abortion counseling in federally assisted clinics, But there was a pre-existing consensus for that action (Congress had almost overturned a Bush veto in 1992), and lifting the gag actually increased Clinton's popularity. There was no such consensus for aiding poor (often minority) women, and Clinton balked. In the meantime, the choice movement had become complacent.
The "change" that Clinton promised - in civil rights, economic policy and social welfare - can come only if national movements re-form and make the necessary politics. For too long, government policy has been engineered by lobbyists and letterheads, adept at balancing the political capital accounts, with no interest in changing the system of distribution. They deny the realities of class and race, and they will never produce the reforms that people beyond their short sight deserve.
Such concerns formed the context for a debate at the annual NOW convention, held on Independence Day weekend in Boston. Two slates of candidates for the top offices were drawn around issues of sexual orientation, class and race, but the trust of the contest was how to build women's grass-roots strength - and to what end. Patricia Ireland's slate was reelected, but more important was the debate that moved NOW toward organizing and action, with a heightened appreciation for extending beyond a middle-class base. NOW could make no better test of its new direction than a push for Medicaid funding of abortions, soon to come up in the Senate. Here is a winnable (though not easy) battle, one that requires the use of political power rather than the luck of Supreme Court vote. Taking it up would declare independence from the Washington crew whose compromising positions have for so long denied rights to the women who need them most.