The Supreme Court upheld the Hyde Amendment (1976) to the Medicaid program, which prohibited federal funding for abortions except where the woman’s life would be endangered or in cases of rape or incest.

The Medicaid program, which began in 1965, provides the states with funds to help pay for the medical needs of poor people. When the Supreme Court struck down restrictive abortion laws in Roe v. Wade (1973), the federal government at first allowed Medicaid funds to pay for abortion services. Most of this funding ended in 1976, when Congress enacted the Hyde Amendment. A 7-3 majority of the Court endorsed a portion of Hyde’s policy in Maher v. Roe[case]Maher v. Roe[Maher v. Roe] (1977), approving a Connecticut welfare regulation that forbad payment for abortions not deemed “medically necessary.” Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr., reasoned that the state had not placed any direct obstacles in the pregnant woman’s path to an abortion; therefore, it had not deprived her of the liberty guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. Because no suspect classification or fundamental right was at issue, the Court applied the standard of rational scrutiny, concluding that the state had a “strong and legitimate interest in encouraging normal childbirth.”Abortion;Harris v. McRae[Harris v. McRae]

Soon after Maher, Norma McRae, a resident of New York, was denied assistance for an abortion deemed medically necessary. Because the denial was based on the Hyde Amendment, McRae claimed that the federal government was depriving her of a fundamental right guaranteed by the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment. By a 5-4 vote, the Court rejected her claim. Relying on the Maher precedent, Justice Potter Stewart Stewart, Potter;Harris v. McRae[Harris v. McRae] wrote that the due process clause protects the liberty to make “certain private decisions” without “unwarranted governmental interference” but that it does not confer “an entitlement to such funds as might be necessary to realize all the advantages of that freedom.” The dissenters argued that the law unconstitutionally discriminated against poor women.

The Court has reaffirmed the principles of Maher and Harris on many occasions. However, several state supreme courts have ruled that their state constitutions prohibit restrictions on abortions when state funds are used.


Due process, substantive

Fundamental rights

Judicial scrutiny

Privacy, right to

Roe v. Wade

San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez