NRL News

The legacy of a pro-life giant

by | Dec 1, 2017

Henry Hyde was among the most ardent, eloquent, and effective defenders of the unborn in U.S. history

By O. Carter Snead

Editor’s note. This week marks the 10th anniversary of the passing of a legendary pro-life champion. The following tribute to Rep. Hyde first appeared last January on the online edition of the Knights of Columbus magazine and is reposted with the author’s kind permission.

Portrait of Rep. Henry Hyde by Michael del Priore, 1998 / photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly / Alamy Stock Photo

Portrait of Rep. Henry Hyde by Michael del Priore, 1998
Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly / Alamy Stock Photo

It is no exaggeration to say that the late U.S. Representative Henry J. Hyde was the greatest American champion in the most important human rights struggle of our time – namely, the fight for equal justice under law for the unborn child. Though he died in 2007, and the legislative achievement bearing his name was enacted by Congress more than 40 years ago, Henry Hyde’s work and witness remain as vital as ever in the continuing effort to build a world in which every child, born and unborn, is protected by law and welcomed into life.

As the United States inaugurates a new president and Congress this month, it is fitting to reflect upon Hyde’s extraordinary legacy as a public servant and to consider what lessons it might hold for the future.


Henry John Hyde was born in Chicago, Ill., April 18, 1924, the third of four children of Henry Clay Hyde, a telephone company coin collector, and Monica Kelly Hyde. During the Great Depression, the family lost its home and was forced to live above a tavern. Young “Hank” worked at his Catholic elementary school to pay the $1-a-month tuition. He continued to work his way through St. George High School in Evanston, loading freight cars, delivering eggs and cleaning as a janitor. Hyde’s early struggles gave him a deep understanding and sympathy for those with little money or power.

The 6-foot-3-inch Hyde won a basketball scholarship to Georgetown University, where he was dubbed “Georgetown’s Little Giant” by the press after the Hoyas came within one game of the 1943 NCAA championship. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1944 and saw combat in the Philippines. Returning to Georgetown two years later, Hyde received a B.A. degree in history in 1947. He married Jean Simpson in Chicago later that year and enrolled in Loyola Law School. After graduating, Hyde began his career as a trial lawyer, and his family soon included three sons and a daughter.

Born and bred a New Deal Democrat, Hyde switched parties in 1952 out of concern about communism and voted for Eisenhower. In 1955, he joined the Knights of Columbus as a member of Father McDonald Council 1911 in Elmhurst, Ill. He won a seat in the state legislature in 1966, and in 1974 he won a race for the Sixth Congressional District of Illinois in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served for the next 22 years.

As a state legislator he was once inclined to co-sponsor a bill legalizing abortion, because he had never fully considered the issue. Once he studied the bill, Hyde changed his mind and led the opposition to defeat it. By the time he arrived in Washington, D.C., he was an ardent defender of the unborn. Indeed, in the eyes of pro-life supporters, Hyde was the right man at the right place at the right time.

Just one year earlier, in 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade declared that the 14th Amendment of the Constitution – enacted in 1868 to reverse America’s shameful failure to respect the inalienable dignity of all human beings – precludes extending the equal protection of the laws to the unborn child. Specifically, Roe fabricated a constitutional right to abortion (nested in a larger “right to privacy”) and simultaneously declared that the unborn child is beyond the reach of the U.S. Constitution’s basic protections.

Read with its lesser-known companion case decided the same day, Doe v. Bolton, Roe in effect held that the Constitution forbids meaningful limits on abortion throughout every stage of pregnancy. The consequences of Roe v. Wade and its jurisprudential successors have brought corrosion and corruption of the rule of law – and a death toll approaching 60 million – to the Unites States.


Henry Hyde understood that law not only reflects the principles of justice of a given society, but also shapes people’s understanding of justice. He grasped that a society is to be judged by how well (or poorly) it cares for and protects the least among us, and that Roe v. Wade and the abortion regime it imposed on the nation reflected the antithesis of the human dignity and basic equality at the core of America’s identity. As he famously said, “The promise of America is not just for the privileged, the planned and the perfect.”

Hyde also understood that the evil of abortion is not a matter of private morality but a violation of basic justice and our duty toward our neighbor. Accordingly, he understood that it is moral nonsense for elected officials to claim that they are “personally” opposed to the law’s failure to protect the innocent from lethal violence on a massive scale while publicly supporting the exclusion of the unborn from the law’s protections.

Though the Supreme Court had just usurped the power of the political branches to protect the unborn child directly, Congressman Hyde nevertheless moved to limit the damage of newly authorized federal funding for abortions. From 1973 to 1977, the federal government spent $50 million on coverage for 300,000 abortions under Medicaid, a program jointly funded by the federal and state governments.

Confronted by the double evils of incentivizing abortions through funding and coercing the cooperation of Americans whose tax dollars funded Medicaid abortions, Hyde declared that we “cannot in logic and conscience help fund the execution of these innocent, defenseless human lives.”

His wit, warmth, fair-mindedness, honesty and intelligence enabled him to work across the aisle like few others could. In 1976, he crafted a bipartisan amendment to the bill appropriating federal funds for Medicaid that effectively prevented such funds from being used to cover abortions. Known as the Hyde Amendment, the original version had an exception for circumstances where carrying the baby to term threatened the mother’s life; later exceptions were added for pregnancies resulting from rape and incest.

After the Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of the Hyde Amendment, the limit on abortion funding became a permanent fixture of Medicaid and was reauthorized with every new appropriations bill.

Helen M. Alvaré, professor of law at George Mason University and former spokesperson for the USCCB’s Secretariat for Pro- Life Activities, recalled celebrating with Hyde in the early 1990s after a successful struggle to pass his amendment yet again.

“After a day and night of umpteen consultations with the House parliamentarian, victory was achieved!” Alvaré wrote in the National Review Online in 2007, recounting her favorite memory of Hyde. “Immediately, a group of us associated with Feminists for Life tromped down to his office on the hill where champagne was being served at some ungodly hour in the morning. … The joy, the eloquence, the zest for life that made him the advocate that saw the movement through some of its darkest days was on full display that morning.”


The Hyde Amendment entrenched in law the commonsense notion that, at a minimum, taxpayers should not be made to pay for abortions, nor should the federal government incentivize abortion for those in poverty. Not surprisingly, the law continues to enjoy wide public support; a July 2016 K of C-Marist poll showed that 62 percent of respondents (including nearly half of those self-identifying as “pro-choice”) oppose public funding of abortion. Efforts to eliminate the Hyde Amendment as unduly restrictive appear to have failed as a political strategy.

Recent studies have shown that the Hyde Amendment is responsible for saving more than 2 million lives – 60,000 lives annually. The Guttmacher Institute – a research organization dedicated to promoting abortion “rights” – has lamented that the Hyde Amendment limits access to abortion.

Hyde built his extraordinary career on honesty, integrity and a bipartisan spirit that is sadly rare in the halls of Congress today. He dedicated his life to remedying the gravest injustice of our time: the denial of equal justice under law for the unborn child. It is a cause at the core of the mission of the Knights of Columbus.

In August 2007, the Knights of Columbus Board of Directors, assembled at the Supreme Convention in Nashville, Tenn., passed a resolution that honored Hyde as “the unrivaled champion of the right to life of children before birth” and called his pro-life achievements “the personification of the right to life movement.”

A few months later, on Nov. 29, 2007, Hyde died at a Chicago hospital at the age of 83.

Upon hearing of Henry Hyde’s death, Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson called the former Congressman “a proud brother Knight for 52 years” and “a dedicated defender of human life.” The supreme knight also described the Hyde Amendment as the “most important pro-life statute ever enacted by Congress” and “a singular achievement,” adding that Hyde “will be remembered as one of the truly great congressmen of his generation.”

Today the American pro-life movement finds itself presented with surprising and unprecedented opportunities. Given the ages of sitting Supreme Court justices, it is possible that soon there may be a majority on the court that will dispatch Roe v. Wade to the dustbin of historical injustices alongside cases such as Dred Scott v. Sandford and Plessy v. Ferguson.

During this time of political transition in the United States, the pro-life movement must continue to demand that the government respect the intrinsic dignity of every member of the human family. Those charged with making, enforcing and interpreting the law have the opportunity to further the work of Henry J. Hyde – transforming America into a nation that embraces and defends all its people, great and small, born and unborn.

O. CARTER SNEAD is director of the Center for Ethics and Culture and a professor of law at the University of Notre Dame, and a member of Our Lady of Victory Council 11487 in Washington, D.C. In 2015, the Center for Ethics and Culture awarded Supreme Knight Carl Anderson and the Knights of Columbus the University of Notre Dame Evangelium Vitae Medal, which recognizes lifetime achievement in the pro-life movement.

Categories: Pro-Lifers