Several members of Congress reintroduced a bill on Tuesday to repeal a decades-old law that effectively prevents U.S. foreign aid from going toward abortions or abortion-related services in countries around the world ― a ban that contributes to unsafe abortions and maternal deaths.
“Making abortion legal isn’t the beginning of women having abortions. It’s the end of women dying from abortions,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), a lead sponsor of the legislation. “It means that women will have what I think is the fundamental choice that describes their freedom: the right to control the size of their families.”
The Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act would remove the Helms Amendment from statute and replace it with a commitment to provide comprehensive reproductive health care information and services, including abortion care. The co-leads of the bill include Democratic Reps. Barbara Lee (Calif.), Jackie Speier (Calif.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), Diana DeGette (Colo.), Norma Torres (Calif.) and Marilyn Strickland (Wash.). The bill has over 100 co-sponsors.
The Helms Amendment prevents U.S. dollars from being used for abortion or other abortion-related services in certain countries, even if abortion is legal in those nations. It primarily impacts Black and brown women in developing countries such as Kenya, Nigeria and Ethiopia, which has caused advocates and lawmakers to criticize the statute as racist.
Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) enacted the statute in 1973, the same year abortion was legalized in the U.S. The senator was a “well-known and self-proclaimed racist,” Schakowsky noted Tuesday, adding that the statue “follows in that path ― it is racist.”
Each day the policy exists, the U.S. is tacitly contributing to 35 million unsafe abortions that take place every year, and tens of thousands of deaths and injuries that occur." Anu Kumar, Ipas
“The Helms Amendment does actively discriminate against poor Black and brown women who essentially live thousands of miles away,” said Anu Kumar, president and CEO of reproductive health organization Ipas. “Each day the policy exists, the U.S. is tacitly contributing to 35 million unsafe abortions that take place every year, and tens of thousands of deaths and injuries that occur.”
Congress could prevent 19 million unsafe abortions around the world every year if it rescinded the Helms Amendment, according to a recent report from the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion rights research organization. Additionally, the overall number of maternal deaths due to unsafe abortions would decline by 98% in the 33 countries affected by the Helms Amendment. Guttmacher also found that there would be 17,000 fewer maternal deaths every year, and 12 million fewer women would have abortion-related complications that require medical treatment.
The Helms Amendment also has devastating implications for humanitarian crises on the ground. As Kumar noted, the U.S. is the largest donor for the Rohingya refugee crisis, contributing $1.2 billion between 2017 and 2020. But not one dollar of that money went toward safe abortion care, even though the women on the ground are experiencing astonishing levels of sexual violence as a weapon of war.
Schakowsky initially introduced the bill last summer, but was unable to get it through Congress with a Republican majority. She said she is much more confident that the bill will succeed now, although she noted that getting it through the current Senate will still be difficult.
The Helms Amendment is similar to but not the same as the global gag rule, also known as the Mexico City policy. The gag rule piggybacks on the Helms Amendment, barring the federal government from offering U.S. aid to any foreign health organization that also offers or provides information on abortion services. Additionally, the gag rule does not allow organizations to use their own money on abortion-related services if they are receiving U.S. foreign aid.
The difference here is that the Helms Amendment effectively bans U.S funding for abortion procedures due to an overinterpretation of the statute, while the gag rule bans any U.S. funding to any foreign nongovernmental organizations that offer or even educate patients on abortion services with their own non-U.S. money. Although the Helms Amendment actually allows for the provisions of abortion information, counseling, post-abortion care and abortion in cases of rape, incest or if the woman’s life is in danger, it has been reinterpreted so many times that organizations on the ground have very little clarity on what it means. With such confusion, many countries end up offering zero abortion services in fear of a misstep and losing out on integral funding.
“Abortion is a neglected area in health care. If U.S. funding did not come with restrictions or conditions around abortion, we could prevent around 1,200 women dying unnecessarily every year,” said Saba Kidanemarian, the country director for Ipas Ethiopia. “By repealing Helms, the U.S. would signal its respect for Ethiopian women and girls and their rights.”