Helms Amendment Hurts Women: It's Time for Change

Every year, 47,000 women die needlessly from unsafe abortion. Forty-seven thousand mothers don't live to see their kids grow up. Forty-seven thousand friends are mourned. Forty-seven thousand dreams will never be reached -- and for no good reason. It's the equivalent of 90 jumbo jets crashing and killing everyone on board, year after year after year.

What if I told you that President Obama could prevent some of these deaths with a single, simple action? First, a quick history lesson: In 1973, the Helms Amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act was first passed. The Helms Amendment prohibits U.S. foreign assistance funding from being used to provide abortions "as a method of family planning."

The Helms Amendment is a legal limitation on abortion funding. It is not a total prohibition when it comes to U.S. international aid. It clearly allows the use of funds to provide safe abortion services to women who have been raped, who are the victims of incest and whose lives would be threatened by carrying a pregnancy to term. It has, however, been enforced -- for as long as anyone can remember -- as an outright ban. And that must change. The overreaching enforcement has dramatic and harmful effects on women's health providers -- and the women they serve -- across the globe.

Imagine what this means for a woman in Rwanda, or the Democratic Republic of Congo, or any nation where rape has been used as a weapon of war. Not only would a rape survivor have to contend with her attack -- she very well might have to risk her life giving birth nine months later. One of the reasons rape is so damaging is that it takes away a victim's right to choose what happens to her own body. By taking away her choice of how to deal with the aftermath, you're prolonging that torture. That's not just my opinion -- it's the opinion of international law. But the Helms Amendment doesn't only hurt women who've been raped or women whose lives are jeopardized by a pregnancy gone wrong. It threatens the health of all women in developing nations. According to the reproductive health organization Ipas, the misapplication of the Helms Amendment harms women in a number of ways:

  • It Leads to Equipment, Drug and Resource Shortages: Health organizations are allowed to provide women post-abortion care. But the U.S. government enforcement of Helms sure doesn't make it easy for them. Organizations can't use USAID funding to buy the tools and drugs they need to treat these women effectively, leading to equipment shortages. So while a provider may be "allowed" to treat women suffering from an unsafe abortion, they may not be able to because they were barred from purchasing the equipment they need to do so. Why? Because that equipment could be used to provide an abortion as well.
  • It Leads to Information Censorship: The Leahy Amendment -- passed in 1994 -- clarified that the Helms Amendment does not prevent organizations from providing women information on all pregnancy options -- including abortion, if allowed by local law. But many funding recipients think that it does and are justifiably skittish about providing comprehensive information. All women deserve unbiased information on their options when dealing with an unwanted or unviable pregnancy. This is particularly important when women are rape survivors or face life-threatening pregnancies.

Population Connection would celebrate the total repeal of the Helms Amendment. It's bad policy. It doesn't help improve health, or reduce poverty, or expand opportunity. In fact, it has no foreign policy benefit whatsoever. But the Helms Amendment was never about foreign policy; it's just an archaic remnant of United States abortion politics. And our abortion politics are utterly divorced from the reality that women in the developing world face -- a reality in which pregnancy kills almost 350,000 women every year. Absent full repeal -- nearly impossible to envision in the current political climate -- we support clarification.

Women in the developing world deserve better care than they're receiving right now under the misinterpretation of the Helms Amendment. Let President Obama know we need his leadership on this. With our help, they can get it.

John Seager is President of Population Connection, the nation's largest grassroots population organization. The organization's website is populationconnection.org.