December 17, 2020

The Biden-Harris administration offers some hope for reproductive health, rights and justice but unless the Helms Amendment is repealed, people in low-to-middle income countries will continue to be denied access to abortion services.

For the past four years, the Trump administration has systematically attempted to roll back sexual and reproductive health and rights globally. Their anti-rights attacks put the United States at odds with the rest of the world and diminish its historical leadership on global health and human rights. Not only must President-elect Biden adopt a bold agenda to undo the harms inflicted by Trump’s anti-rights policies, but his administration and Congress must proactively repeal all US foreign policies that prohibit access to abortion services. This includes supporting the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act, which repeals the Helms Amendment and was introduced by Rep. Jan Schakowsky this summer.

“Since 1973, the Helms Amendment has prohibited any US foreign aid from being used for ‘the performance of abortion as a method of family planning.’ In practice, Helms has banned all US foreign assistance funds from being used for any abortion care. As the largest government funder of global health, including family planning and reproductive health services, the United States should be stepping up and doing everything we can to prevent negative maternal health outcomes. But instead we have archaic language that creates an arbitrary line between abortion and all other health-care services, limiting access to critical care, particularly in the Global South. It is plain wrong for the United States to force a health-care provider in another country to choose between limiting the care they can give to patients and keeping critical funding. Doctors pledge to do no harm,” states Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL).

The Helms Amendment was signed into law as part of the Foreign Assistance Act on December 17, 1973 after being authored by then Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC), a politician well-known for his racist and discriminatory positions. The amendment prohibits the use of any US foreign assistance funds for “abortion as a method of family planning.” In effect, it is implemented as a ban on funding for abortion and denies millions of mostly Black and brown people in low-to-middle income countries the health care they need and want.

“The Helms Amendment is a racist relic rooted in extreme anti-abortion politics rather than sound global health policy. For more than four decades, it has restricted access to legal abortion services, increased stigma, and robbed pregnant people of their right to make decisions about their own health and lives. Although the United States and global community have made great strides in recognizing and upholding sexual and reproductive rights since 1973, the Helms Amendment continues to inflict harm on and undermine human rights for marginalized communities worldwide. If the incoming Biden administration wants to reestablish the United States as a leader of global health and human rights, Congress must pass the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act to eliminate US-sponsored barriers to care and ensure that people worldwide have access to safe and legal abortion services,” said Nina Besser Doorley, Associate Director of Advocacy and Policy at the International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC).

Restricting US foreign aid for abortion is harmful to the health and well-being of people around the world. Barriers to accessing abortion care too often mean that people’s only option is to seek an abortion in conditions that are considered unsafe —globally, more than 35 million people have abortions in unsafe conditions each year. As a result, tens of thousands of people die and millions more face dangerous injuries and complications.

In July, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), a Senior Chief Deputy Whip and Chair of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus Providers and Clinics Task Force, introduced the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act, with original co-sponsors Reps. Nita Lowey (D-NY), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Jackie Speier (D-CA), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Diana DeGette (D-CO), and Norma Torres (D-CA). The bill is currently cosponsored by more than 120 representatives in the 116th Congress. This was the first time in 47 years that members of Congress have introduced standalone legislation to repeal the Helms Amendment.

“The Helms Amendment imposes arbitrary and medically unnecessary abortion restrictions on international communities, allowing the United States to control the health care and bodily autonomy of billions of Black and Brown people around the world. When people aren’t allowed to make their own reproductive health decisions, and have limited access to vital health care, it has dire consequences for their health. It costs lives. If we are serious about racial and reproductive justice worldwide, then we must repeal the Helms Amendment, and that is exactly what we intend to do,” says Congresswoman Schakowsky.

The Biden-Harris administration can show Americans, and the rest of the world, that they stand for reproductive freedom by supporting the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act. It’s time to end nearly five decades of harm.

Immediately upon taking office, President Biden must issue an executive order stating his administration’s commitment to protect sexual and reproductive rights and expand access to comprehensive reproductive health care, including abortion, not only in the United States but globally. The new administration has committed to rescinding the global gag rule (also known as the ‘Mexico City policy’), a presidential memorandum that prohibits foreign organizations that receive US global health assistance from using their own funds to provide abortion services, information, counseling or referrals and from engaging in advocacy to expand abortion access. But with the Helms Amendment in place, the largest government funder of reproductive health in the world—the US government—continues to neglect, stigmatize and separate abortion care.

A broad coalition of global reproductive health and rights advocacy, research, and service delivery organizations has been working to mitigate and address the harms caused by Helms for years. The bill is currently endorsed by more than 115 organizations.

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Contact: Liza Kane-Hartnett; (+1) 917.498.3346

Photo: Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty Images/Images of Empowerment