Globally, unsafe abortion remains one of the leading causes of maternal mortality. Some 22 million women experience an unsafe abortion each year, nearly all in developing countries. About 47,000 women die from complications of an unsafe abortion annually. It’s clear that lack of access to safe and legal abortion stands between us and ending maternal mortality.
The United States government is complicit in these statistics. By law, U.S. funding cannot be used to provide abortion, “as a method of family planning,” overseas. Thanks to language known as the Helms Amendment, passed in 1973 in the wake of the Roe v. Wade decision, the U.S. government has erected an additional barrier standing between women and the health care they need.
By the letter of the law, the Helms Amendment is bad policy. But in practice, it’s even worse. Successive presidential administrations have interpreted Helms as a blanket prohibition on funding for all abortion services, even though the law only forbids use of funding for abortion in certain cases: “as a method of family planning.” Even under a conservative reading of the law, funding for abortion should be perfectly legal in cases of rape, incest, or where the life of the mother is endangered. Other prohibitions on federal funding for abortion, including the analogous domestic provision known as the Hyde Amendment, allow abortion in these limited instances.
U.S. government-funded family planning and maternal health programs reach women in over 40 countries – in all 40 of these countries, abortion is legal to save a woman’s life, and in over half it is permitted in cases of rape or incest. The U.S. government should not be erecting additional barriers between women and the health services they need.
The current interpretation of Helms also harms women who suffer from pregnancy complications and post-partum hemorrhage. For example, USAID reads the amendment as requiring a ban on the purchase of equipment and drugs used in postabortion care. According to the Guttmacher Institute, “this decision has contributed to shortages in life-saving resources, and to an incomplete and inconsistent approach to addressing unsafe abortion injuries.”
President Obama has the opportunity to change this, and to clarify that the ban on funding for “abortion as a method of family planning” does not apply to abortions provided in the cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the woman. It does not bar the U.S. government from purchasing the medical equipment and drugs needed for complete post-abortion care. It does not prevent U.S. government-funded NGOs from providing counseling, education, and referrals for women with unwanted pregnancies. And because the change would bring implementation into line with the actual language of the law, taking executive action to correctly implement Helms would not require congressional action, nor would it overstep the President’s executive authority.
Even once correctly implemented, it doesn’t fix the problem; Helms would remain a barrier for millions of women seeking abortions, even in countries where abortion is legal. The facts just don’t support the policy: the World Health Organization has found that imposing abortion bans does not stop or necessarily even lower abortion rates. In fact, the major impact of criminalizing abortion is to force women to undergo unsafe procedures to terminate unwanted pregnancies.
But while we wait for a Congress willing to repeal the Helms amendment, minimizing the law’s harm is an important first step. President Obama has the opportunity to do this now and last week over 80 organizations, including IWHC, sent him a letter asking him to take action. The Helms Amendment is bad enough; it’s time to end the unnecessarily restrictive interpretation of the law that keeps women in some of the poorest areas of the world from accessing critical health services.