In July, Congress introduced the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act of 2020—the first-ever legislation to repeal the Helms Amendment. The bill was introduced by Rep. Jan Schakowksy (D-Ill.) and co-sponsored by Reps. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) and Norma Torres (D-Calif.).
Established in 1973 (notably the same year as the Roe decision), the Helms Amendment—introduced by former Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), an ultraconservative senator marked by blatant racism and other odious behavior—dictates U.S. foreign aid cannot be used for abortions.
Though there are exceptions for rape, incest and threat to the pregnant person’s life, in practice, the Helms Amendment has created a complete ban on abortion funding abroad—even in countries where abortion is legal.
Since its enactment, the Helms Amendment has been criticized as an imperialist, ideological, racist and classist policy.
“The Helms Amendment is a policy deeply rooted in racism,” said Rep. Schakowsky. “It imposes our 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.”
Moreover, many argue abortion restrictions like Helms have led to the avoidable deaths of thousands of women by coercing them to seek unsafe alternatives.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, 35 million women per year have abortions in potentially lethal conditions. What’s more, unsafe abortions are one of the leading causes of maternal mortality worldwide.
And this year could be even worse—health care facilities are overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic, making it even more difficult for women to access safe reproductive health care, including abortions.
“While many countries have made inroads toward increased reproductive freedoms over the past two decades, the U.S. continues to restrict aid through the Helms Amendment, making safe abortions out of reach and putting millions of lives at risk,” said Rep. Lee, co-chair of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus. “Each year, millions of people around the world have unsafe abortions, leading to debilitating injuries.”
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“For over four decades, the Helms Amendment has frustrated access to essential sexual and reproductive health services worldwide,” said Dr. Chimaraoke Izugbara of the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW). “Our research shows people of all genders who have bodily autonomy are healthier, are more financially secure and are more empowered in their decision-making and participation in social and political life. Particularly for women and girls, these benefits extend to healthier and economically secure families, communities and societies.”
#RepealHelms and #HelmsHurts
The #HelmsHurts social media campaign is bringing attention to the problematic nature of Helms.
After former President Obama dismayed reproductive justice advocates by not repealing it himself, the push to repeal the amendment has received more traction in recent years.
In 2016, presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton both pledged to repeal Helms through executive action. The current presumptive Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden, has also denounced the amendment following backlash for previous positions regarding reproductive healthcare.
“Hyde’s Days are Numbered”
While the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act gains momentum, it seems the same energy will soon be directed towards repealing the Hyde Amendment.
The domestic version of Helms, the Hyde Amendment prohibits federal funding for abortion care, with the same exceptions of rape, incest or harm to the pregnant person.
“Abortion is an essential health care service and should be upheld as such, regardless of political climate, local or global crises, or funding challenges,” said Dr. Chimaraoke Izugbara. “Access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health and wellness services is a human right.”
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