After months of avoiding the issue, Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have both promised that their administrations would reinterpret the Helms Amendment, a long-standing U.S. policy that blocks abortion funds for women raped in conflict and in developing countries. Clinton promised the policy would include exceptions for rape, incest and protecting the life of the mother. Sanders went a step further and said he would push to repeal it altogether.
An activist from reproductive rights group Population Connection Action Fund ambushed Clinton at a campaign event in late January and asked whether she would fix Helms, which bans all U.S. foreign aid money from being used to pay for abortion care for any reason. "Oh yeah, yeah, yeah," Clinton replied in the video, which was provided to The Huffington Post. "I'm on record on that."
Clinton was actually not previously on record saying that. Asked about the Helms Amendment at a campaign event in Iowa in November, she said only that she would "take a look" at the policy for conflict zones.
Sanders' campaign made an even bigger promise on Thursday, telling HuffPost in a statement that he would not only use executive action to reinterpret Helms, but would push to get rid of it altogether. “Sen. Sanders is opposed to the Helms amendment,” said Arianna Jones, the senator's deputy communications director. “As president, he will sign an executive order to allow for U.S. foreign aid to pay for abortions in cases of rape, incest or when the life of the woman is at risk. He will also work with Congress to permanently repeal both the Hyde and Helms amendments.” The Hyde Amendment prevents federal money from being used for abortion domestically, with those three exceptions.
Despite the wording of the Helms Amendment, which states that no foreign aid money can be used to pay for abortion “as a method of family planning,” the policy has been interpreted by ever White House since 1973 to mean any instance of abortion, without exceptions for rape, incest or life of the mother. That includes the Obama administration, which has resisted pressure to change the policy from reproductive rights groups, the United Nations and some European allies.
The president could easily change the policy without the help of Congress by using executive action to clarify that the law should be interpreted to include certain exceptions. Repealing the policy altogether, as Sanders proposes, would allow U.S. money to support abortion care for any other humanitarian reason, such as helping women infected with the Zika virus to have a choice not to continue their pregnancies.
Late last year, HuffPost traveled to Kenya to see firsthand the devastating consequences of a U.S. policy that makes no exception for rape or incest victims. For that story, over the course of several weeks, the Clinton campaign was unable to give HuffPost an answer on whether, under her administration, there would continue to be no exception for women raped in conflict.
But a Clinton spokeswoman confirmed to HuffPost on Thursday that she would reinterpret the policy as president and bring it in line with its domestic counterpart, the Hyde Amendment. Here, a woman can use a federal program like Medicaid to help pay for her abortion if she becomes pregnant from sexual assault or incest or if her life is endangered by the pregnancy.
“Yes, Hillary Clinton would fix the Helms Amendment,” a campaign spokeswoman said in an email. “She believes we need to take a close look [at] this. The systematic use of rape as a tool of war is a tactic of vicious militias and insurgent and terrorist groups around the world. She saw first hand as Secretary of State the suffering of survivors of sexual violence in armed conflict during her visit to Goma in 2009. She believes we should help women who have been raped in conflict get the care that they need.”
Overturning the policy -- which would align the way the U.S. treats women in other countries with the way we treat American women -- would not be controversial with the public. Nearly 4 in 5 people tell pollsters abortion should be permitted for rape and incest victims, not only in conflict zones, as Clinton specified, but anywhere. (It's not clear why a woman raped and impregnated in a non-conflict zone wouldn't deserve the same treatment as one raped in a conflict zone.)