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Harris v. McRae

    Brief Fact Summary. This case involves the constitutionality of the Hyde Amendment which restricts the use of Medicaid funds for abortions.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. An unequal distribution of federal funds does not rise to the level of governmental interference in the guarantee of constitutional rights.

    Facts. Since September 1976, Congress prohibited the use of any federal funds to reimburse the cost of abortions under the Medicaid program except under certain specified circumstances including the endangerment of the mother and for victims of rape or incest. This restriction is known as the Hyde Amendment. The District Court invalidated all versions of the Hyde Amendment as being unconstitutional.

    Issue. Whether the Hyde Amendment, by denying public funding for certain medically necessary abortions, contravenes the liberty or equal protection guarantees of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, or either of the Religion Clauses of the first Amendment?

    Held. No. The constitutional freedoms provided for in Roe v. Wade do not extend to access to public funds. The Hyde Amendment does not place a governmental obstacle in the path of a woman who chooses to terminate her pregnancy, but withholds funding in certain circumstances. Furthermore, the Court states that a woman’s freedom of choice does not carry with it a constitutional entitlement of the financial resources to avail herself of the full range of protected resources. The Hyde Amendment is also upheld as having a rational relationship to a legitimate governmental objective of protecting the potential life of the fetus.

    Dissent.
    The Hyde Amendment’s denial of funding for medically necessary abortions plainly intrudes upon this constitutionally protected decision. In effect it serves to coerce indigent pregnant women to bear children that they would otherwise elect not to have. By funding all of the expenses associated with childbirth and none of the expenses incurred in terminating pregnancy, the government literally makes an offer that the indigent woman cannot afford to refuse. The majority, in its analysis fails to acknowledge that the discriminatory distribution of the benefits of government largesse can discourage the exercise of fundamental liberties.
    The Court’s decision creates a two-tiered approach to applying the Equal Protection Clause. It creates different rights for those who are with means and those who are without. Also looks to abandon the strict-scrutiny rational basis dichotomy in equal protection analysis to conclude that the Hyde Amendment is a denial of equal protection. The Court must be willing to apply the constraints of the Constitution to decisions involving the expenditure of governmental funds.
    The Hyde Amendments exclude financially and medically needy persons from the pool of benefits for a constitutionally insufficient reason, and require the expenditure of millions of dollars to thwart the exercise of a constitutional right. These amendments constitute an unjustifiable and blatant violation of the sovereign’s duty to govern impartially.

    Discussion. This case stands for the idea that the distribution of federal funds is separate from the existence of constitutional rights. An impartial distribution of federal funds does not inherently rise to the restriction of constitutional rights. The dissents in this case disagree and feel that the distribution of federal funds does raise questions concerning the government’s guarantee of constitutional rights. This is especially true for the dissenters when it involves indigents who are in special need of these funds.


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