No More Compromises: Fighting Abortion Restrictions The Right Way

The Trump administration took no time in attacking abortion rights. The president’s expanded Global Gag Rule impacts some $8.8 billion dollars in U.S. aid—which will force clinics to close and lead women around the world to lose access to contraception, HIV prevention and maternal health care. Let’s not mince words: This policy will lead to an increase in unintended pregnancies and more unsafe abortions. And it will kill women.

How can Trump do this? Why is the president allowed to unilaterally cut health care for millions of women around the world—including women who have been raped in war who have a guaranteed right to necessary medical care, including abortion, under international law?

To understand, we must go all the way back to 1973.

Immediately after the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, Senator Jesse Helms introduced an amendment banning the use of U.S. foreign assistance funds to speak about or provide abortion services. Republican presidents starting with Reagan in 1984 began imposing additional restrictions on foreign NGOs receiving U.S. family planning aid through the Global Gag Rule. In order to be eligible for U.S. funds under the rule, organizations around the world must promise that they will not speak or perform abortions.

The legal basis for President Reagan’s ability to issue the Gag Rule, according to the State Department, was the Helms Amendment. It is therefore impossible to fight and address the harm caused by the Gag Rule without addressing the underlying justifications for all U.S. abortion restrictions—yet for decades, some reproductive rights groups and political leaders hesitated to challenge Helms or its domestic counterpart, the Hyde amendment. Some groups and lawmakers implicitly legitimized Helms even as they railed against the Global Gag, arguing that since U.S. funds already couldn’t be used for abortions, no further abortion restrictions were necessary. Today, as we face an unprecedented expansion of abortion restrictions, I am seeing the same arguments resurface.

This legitimization set a dangerous precedent. The division of abortion from women’s equality in the United States—now embedded for over 47 years—is unlike anywhere else in the world, and it has been harming women at home and abroad for decades.

The good news? It is 2017, not 1973.  The world has changed in ways not even imagined 30 years ago—and these changes must serve as a foundation for what we do next. Women have increased power in government. The power of technology and global civil society has increased. Major Security Council Resolutions on women have passed, global norms on women’s rights have changed and over 30 constitutions from countries around the world now contain affirmative human rights and women’s equality guarantees that far exceed any in the U.S. constitution. There is growing legal consensus that the women raped in war are considered persons “wounded and sick in armed conflict” whose medical care is governed by international humanitarian law, including the provision of abortion services regardless of local laws.

There have even been advances on the Helms amendment since 2010. U.S. reproductive rights groups have worked hard in recent years to raise awareness of the harms caused by Helms and argue against its legality—and in 2015, five countries directly challenged the abortion restrictions the U.S. imposes on its foreign aid at the UN. In its 2016 budget, the European Union included an “anti-Helms amendment” that stated that EU funds would not be subject to restrictions imposed by partner donors.

In 2016, the repeal of the Helms amendment was included for the first time in Democratic Party platform. This is progress that cannot be squandered.

“Don’t throw abortion under the bus.” Over the course of my over 40-year career as a reproductive rights advocate, that has been my rallying cry. Now is the time to use the groundswell in civil society activism that’s arisen since the election of Trump to push forward the conversation on gender equality, both here in the states and around the world. Now is the not the time to assign abortion as merely a “social issue” that can be compromised. Thinking small and striving to preserve dwindling bits of the status quo has proven to be ineffective and counterproductive. As we have seen, the compromises made today will serve as the justification for further restrictions on women’s rights ten years down the road.

By expanding the Gag Rule, Trump has shown that combating the funding gap created by U.S. abortion restrictions is not enough. We must challenge the underlying legal arguments on which it is based. We must use the grassroots activism, political will and legal advances of the past decades to finally treat abortion and reproductive rights as central to women’s ability to achieve true equality.

We have tried compromising. Now we must try fighting.



Janet Benshoof has long been at the center of fights against U.S. abortion restrictions on foreign assistance. First as the head of the ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project, then as the Founder and President of the Center for Reproductive Rights and now as the President of the Global Justice Center.