Abortion has been legal in the United States since the Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade. But restrictions on Medicaid funding for abortion have been nearly as effective as an actual ban at keeping low-income women in over 30 states, including Maine, from undergoing the procedure.

Now the ACLU of Maine is taking the state to court in an effort to restore abortion coverage for Medicaid recipients. If the suit succeeds, it will be a victory not just for women and families, but also for the right to safe medical care, regardless of income.

Medicaid restrictions on abortion funding date to 1977, when federal legislation known as the Hyde Amendment took effect, blocking federal funds from going to pay for abortions unless the pregnancy endangers the woman’s life or is the result of rape or incest. States may use their own funds to pay for abortions, but only 17 do so.

The civil liberties union filed suit Tuesday on behalf of three nonprofits specializing in reproductive and sexual health care: Mabel Wadsworth Women’s Health Center, Maine Family Planning, and Planned Parenthood of Northern New England.

The restrictions on abortion under MaineCare affect the over 95,000 Maine women of reproductive age who are covered by the state’s Medicaid program. These are the women who are far more likely than their more-well-off peers to face an unintended pregnancy.

Denied funding for abortion, some pay for one by working extra hours, pawning possessions or cutting back on food or heat. Others delay the procedure, which makes it more risky and more costly. And still others are forced to carry their pregnancies to term – which can entail hardship for entire families, since the majority of women seeking abortions already have at least one child at home.

The ACLU justifiably contends that the ban on MaineCare abortion coverage violates both state law and the Maine Constitution because it affects only low-income women who are seeking to terminate a pregnancy – not women with private insurance or the funds to pay for an abortion out of pocket.

Even the late U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde, author of the amendment on which Maine’s restrictions are based, acknowledged the uneven impact of his proposal, saying in 1977: “I certainly would like to prevent, if I could legally, anybody having an abortion, a rich woman, a middle-class woman or a poor woman. Unfortunately, the only vehicle available is the … Medicaid bill.”

It’s time to remedy this inequity. We’re glad to see that the ACLU recognizes this and is standing up for a single, equitable system of health care for all Maine women.

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