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Budget negotiations are set to heat up after Congress’s August recess. Some Republicans are planning to use the power of the purse to combat “woke” policies with new budget riders, while the left is taking aim at “legacy riders”—including those that have long limited funding for abortion-related activities at home and abroad. One of those legacy riders includes language originally championed by the man who now occupies the White House. The “Biden Amendment” has long limited abortion-related spending abroad, but its future is uncertain—especially as its namesake continues a long march away from his earlier anti-abortion positions.

In 1981, a young Sen. Joe Biden used his perch on the Foreign Relations Committee to insert wording into a permanent statute governing foreign assistance spending. The Biden Amendment prevents foreign assistance dollars from “pay[ing] for any biomedical research which relates, in whole or in part, to methods of, or the performance of, abortions or involuntary sterilization as a means of family planning.” In short, it bars funding for the building of better baby traps overseas. This was hardly a fanciful notion in 1981, when a much poorer China was implementing its brutal “one-child policy.” Belt and suspenders style, the words of the Biden Amendment have also long been part of the standard package of riders included in presidential budget proposals and approved by Congress.

Most coverage of abortion-related budget riders focuses on the Hyde Amendment—named for its sponsor, the late Republican Congressman Henry Hyde of Chicago—and similar provisions preventing the direct federal funding of most abortions. Biden long supported the Hyde Amendment, which must be renewed each budget cycle, and even repeatedly opposed attempts to add rape and incest exceptions. In a 1994 constituent letter Biden stated that he had voted against federal abortion funding “on no fewer than 50 occasions” because “those of us who are opposed to abortion should not be compelled to pay for them.” In his 2007 book Promises to Keep, Biden continued to highlight his opposition to federally funded abortions. 

Yet on the campaign trail in 2020, Biden first came out against the Hyde Amendment when a voter questioned him about it. After video of the informal interaction surfaced, his campaign team first claimed that Biden had misheard the question and reaffirmed his support for Hyde. That position proved short-lived. Biden eventually wilted under pressure and, speaking from prepared remarks in a formal setting, rather glumly embraced the federal funding he had long opposed.

Biden’s seemingly conflicted change of heart perhaps gave some pro-lifers hope that he might flip again after winning the election. But while Biden still occasionally invokes his Catholic faith and says he is “not big on abortion,” his recent budget proposals have broken from decades of practice and removed the Hyde Amendment language, a move that—if approved by Congress—would channel millions of dollars to hundreds of thousands of Medicaid-funded abortions every year.

Hyde has thus far survived during the Biden administration due to the GOP’s current control of the House—and before that, the efforts of West Virginia senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat, in a 50/50 Senate. But while Democrats who opposed the federal funding of abortions were once commonplace, today the ranks are exceedingly thin. Manchin, Virginia’s Tim Kaine, and Pennsylvania’s Robert Casey Jr. were the only Democratic senators who voted to support a Hyde-like amendment for a massive 2021 Covid-19 relief bill. (That effort failed, and all three eventually voted for a final version of the bill without any protections against federal abortion funding.) In the House, Rep. Henry Cuellar of south Texas, who has often supported Hyde-type language, was the only Democrat to vote for a proposed new rider that would stop the Pentagon’s recent policy of funding travel and time off to facilitate abortions for military personnel.  

With the decline of the once robust cohort of pro-Hyde Democrats, others in the party, sometimes invoking claims of discrimination and racism, are becoming increasingly vocal advocates for funding abortion. They are spurred on by efforts such as the Clean Budget Coalition, which has gathered dozens of left-leaning organizations to oppose what it calls, apparently without seeing the odd irony in an abortion context, “poison pill” riders. 

What of the Biden Amendment? Despite dropping Hyde, Biden's proposed budgets so far have still included the Biden Amendment and numerous other legacy riders relating to abortion. Biden’s trend is clear, though. Biden was near the peak of his pro-life activism in 1981 when he spearheaded the Biden Amendment. The following year, in 1982, he would cast a Judiciary Committee vote for a constitutional amendment that would have returned the issue of abortion to legislatures—exactly what the Dobbs decision that he loudly decried in 2022 actually did. Not long after supporting that explicitly anti-Roe effort, Biden began to shift his votes and his rhetoric in a pro-abortion direction. That change rode the wave of shifting party dynamics as blue-collar Catholics were increasingly replaced by white-collar Nones.  

When he eventually confirmed his flip on Hyde, Biden said that he could not “justify leaving millions of women without the care they need,” especially the “poorest and most vulnerable Americans.” That same logic would appear to undermine the abortion prong of the Biden Amendment. If abortion is a way to care for the poorest and most vulnerable, then why limit that benevolence to the United States alone? Why not support research that could improve abortions around the world?

Whether from the left or right, these are questions worth asking, especially as Biden prepares to lean in on abortion during his re-election campaign. Because of its dual status as an annual budget rider that is regularly copied and pasted as well as a piece of permanent law that must be explicitly repealed, the Biden Amendment may yet outlive its namesake. Sadly, it has now outlived his pro-life convictions. 

John Murdock is an attorney who writes from northeast Texas.

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Image by Gage Skidmore licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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