U.S. House Urges Obama to Reinterpret Strict Abortion Rule

This month, 81 Members of the U.S. House of Representatives urged President Obama to take immediate action to end the “unduly strict” interpretation of the Helms amendment and to allow funding for abortion globally in cases of rape, incest, and life endangerment. In a letter dated August 3, 2015, the Members of Congress referenced the President’s recent trip to Ethiopia and Kenya, and emphasized that, globally, the overly restrictive interpretation of the Helms amendment remains a barrier between women and critical, often-lifesaving healthcare.

Backed by IWHC and other NGO partners, the letter was authored by Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), the top Democrat on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), a long-time advocate for women’s rights.

The Helms Amendment, as written, is an incredibly damaging piece of legislation. It forbids U.S. dollars from funding abortion globally “as a method of family planning.” As legislated by Congress, the Helms amendment infringes on women’s rights.  However, as implemented by the Obama Administration, the Helms amendment is even worse: this Administration has continued the practice of using an overly broad interpretation of the Helms amendment, reading the provision instead as a blanket ban on abortion funding under all circumstances.

President Obama cannot change the Helms amendment without an act of Congress, but he can take immediate action to allow funding for abortion in limited cases: rape, incest, and life endangerment. Such a move would correctly interpret the provision–in none of these situations is abortion utilized as a method of family planning–and would help to ensure that women globally have access to abortion in the same extreme situations as do all women in the United States.

In some cases, the inability to access or afford safe abortion costs women their lives.  Every year, some 289,000 women die in childbirth–13 percent of these due to unsafe abortion. We cannot end preventable maternal mortality without improving access to safe abortion services. In July, IWHC and 70 other organizations wrote to President Obama to, once again, urge him to correctly interpret the Helms amendment. The letter emphasized that both Kenya and Ethiopia are among the 24 USAID priority countries where 70 percent of worldwide maternal deaths occur, and that unsafe abortion remains a key driver of maternal mortality.

For an Administration that has rightly taken pride in its attention to women and girls around the world, the President’s failure to take action on Helms remains a glaring oversight. The U.S. should not stand between women and the health care they need, particularly in some of the poorest regions of the world. “Fixing” Helms may take an act of Congress, but it’s time for the President to minimize the damage by interpreting the amendment correctly and allowing U.S. funding for abortion in cases of rape, incest, and life endangerment.


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