Here Comes the Pope: The Pontiff's Arrival Demands We Address Access to Abortion Care

by Joséphine Kabambi

It's September and Pope Francis has recently arrived in the United States. Between the Secret Service’s Pope blockade in Philadelphia’s Center City, confusion and frustration about SEPTA transportation service, and the growing appeal of skipping town altogether, the Pope's visit to Philadelphia has certainly given us much to talk about. But as a Christian and dedicated Pope watcher working at an abortion access organization in Philadelphia, I can't help but notice that the Pope's visit coincides almost exactly with the 39th anniversary of the Hyde Amendment, a federal legislative provision voted on yearly which denies low-income women coverage for abortion. Although Pope Francis himself has maintained an anti-abortion stance, his calls to challenge systems of oppression that perpetuate economic inequality have felt both refreshing and relevant to my work.

Like other abortion restrictions, the Hyde Amendment disproportionately impacts those already facing many barriers to accessing healthcare services: women of color, low-income women, young women and immigrant women. In particular, the Hyde Amendment prevents those insured through Medicaid from using their insurance to access abortion care. What makes this restriction particularly punitive is that for many, Medicaid coverage can mean the difference between getting abortion care and being denied.

Forcing a woman already struggling financially to pay out of pocket for an abortion can be prohibitive and has a negative impact on that woman’s long-term financial well-being. Studies have shown that when politicians place restrictions on Medicaid coverage for abortion, one in four women seeking an abortion is forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term. Additionally, a woman who seeks an abortion but is denied is more likely to fall into poverty than a woman who is able to get an abortion. The negative financial consequences of Hyde are clear: when a woman is living paycheck to paycheck, denying coverage for an abortion can push her deeper into poverty. No one should have to choose between their health and their economic security.

The undeniable connection between access to abortion care and economic security is often ignored or altogether misrepresented in larger conversations surrounding abortion. For example, a few months ago the president of a national anti-abortion group made a plea on behalf of the “disenfranchised, the needy, the oppressed" by calling for a moratorium on abortions in Philadelphia during Pope Francis’ visit. Not only is this disingenuous plea patronizing to the women making important and personal life decisions, it is also grossly out of touch with the lived experiences of women in Southeastern PA because additional restrictions to access would make women’s economic circumstances worse.

Every day on the Women’s Medical Fund Help Line, we hear from women in our community seeking financial assistance for an abortion. Many of the women we talk to are people of faith. Although each woman is different, there is one common theme that connects them: by the time we speak to a woman, she has already weighed her options and determined that at this particular time, in her unique circumstances, abortion is the best option for her.

Calling for further restrictions on abortions during the Pope’s visit (or ever) does not improve the financial security of women and families struggling to make ends meet. Instead, like all abortion restrictions, additional restrictions often create insurmountable financial barriers for women seeking abortion care.

I was heartened to hear that earlier this summer California Representative Barbara Lee introduced the groundbreaking EACH Woman Act in the U.S. House of Representatives that would finally put an end to discriminatory insurance restrictions on abortion care. The EACH Woman Act ensures that politicians cannot interfere with a woman's decision about abortion based on her income, how she is insured, or where she lives. The EACH Woman act would make sure that if a woman gets her care or insurance through the federal government, she will be covered for all pregnancy-related care including abortion. Furthermore, it prevents political interference with private coverage for abortion care. To date, over 100 legislators and 60 organizations, including several faith-base organizations, have endorsed the EACH Woman Act.

The reality is that, when it comes to abortion, like many other issues, we as Christians don’t always agree. But as people who believe in the inherent dignity and equal worth of all people, we cannot allow politicians to single out low-income women enrolled in Medicaid solely to limit their access to abortion care. Instead, we should challenge oppression that perpetuates economic inequality. That’s exactly why I oppose the Hyde Amendment and call on Christians, including Catholics, to join me. Advocating otherwise is discrimination, plain and simple.

Photo: Giulio Napolitano /

Joséphine Kabambi is the Program Coordinator at the Women’s Medical Fund, an abortion access organization serving Southeastern PA and a member fund of the National Network of Abortion Funds.

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