It’s Time to Confront Senator Helms’s Sexist, Racist and Homophobic Legacy

In 1973, the Supreme Court (7-2) struck down laws criminalizing abortion in the United States. That victory was Roe v. WadeHowever, that same year, the United States adopted legislation that conditioned its foreign aid on denying abortion access to women in poorer countries that desperately relied on U.S. assistance. 

That legislation, the Helms Amendment—named for the late, self-proclaimed bigot, Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.)—prohibits U.S. aid for pregnancy terminations.  This amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act is now a permanent law and the consequences are devastating and horrific. 

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“The Helms Amendment was a cynical and cruel measure carried out by a powerful, self-described misogynist whose influence in the Senate (and ultimately the world) was far-reaching,” writes Goodwin. Pictured: Sen. Helms between Miss North Carolina and Miss Watermelon in July 1991. (Wikimedia Commons)

According to the World Health Organization, every year nearly 25 million women and girls around the world endure unsafe abortions.  Notably, those most harmed by this U.S. law are vulnerable Black and Brown women.

Important lessons can be learned from pre-Roe history in America—as this represents current conditions for far too many girls and women in poor nations.  Inaccessibility to legal abortions did not stop girls and women in the U.S. from ending their pregnancies—or trying to do so.  The least fortunate bled to death in their beds, tubs or on kitchen tables after self-induced attempts to end their pregnancies.  Those more fortunate made it to hospitals where doctors could try, but too often failed, to save their lives. 

Medical wards in major cities filled with such patients.  According to Leslie Reagan, author of “When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States“: “Some barely survived the bleeding, injuries and burns; others did not.”  She examined data at Cook County Hospital and other medical facilities where entire wards were dedicated to treating “abortion-related complications.”   

Annually, “[t]ens of thousands of women” in the United States sought emergency care following illegal abortions. Deaths were particularly common among women of color.

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Memorial to women who died from illegal unsafe abortions in Washington, D.C., November 12, 1989. (Wikimedia Commons)

Some women survived, because they were sufficiently wealthy to travel abroad or to states where the procedure was legal, or they found doctors willing to document that their physical or mental health posed a great threat of danger.  Some states permitted abortions if the woman could prove that she was sufficiently mentally unstable, emotionally fractured or would become so.  We have yet to fully confront this ugly past.

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Seen at a Stop Kavanaugh rally at U.S. Capitol Grounds on September 4, 2018. (Wikimedia Commons)

That was life pre-Roe, and the Supreme Court has since recognized the grave inhumanity in denying women the dignity of determining their own reproductive future.  The Court found “the right of privacy… is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.”  According to the Court, unwanted pregnancies dramatically constrained a young woman’s education and vocational opportunities. Shame and stigma accompanied single parenthood, including the prospect of being exiled from the home and community.  

As Justice Harry Blackmun, author of the Court’s opinion, wrote:

“Maternity, or additional offspring, may force upon the woman a distressful life and future.” 

The Helms Amendment was a cynical and cruel measure carried out by a powerful, self-described misogynist whose influence in the Senate (and ultimately the world) was far-reaching. The Helms Amendment was never centered on protecting women’s health and safety or respect for women’s intellectual, religious, or moral capacities.  Senator Helms had little respect for women, people of color, or the LGBTQ community—as he made clear on numerous occasions.  

In fact, after Senator Helms strong-armed and otherwise persuaded members of congress to pass the measure, he did not vote for the foreign aid package as he disapproved of U.S. foreign aid to developing countries. 

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He consistently fought against U.S. funding for HIV research, crudely arguing that homosexuality is “deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct,” and the disease served as punishment.  Helms considered it “common sense” to limit funding to combat HIV/AIDS, because the “disease [is] transmitted by people deliberately engaging in unnatural acts.” He opposed a 1988 appropriations bill that would increase funding for AIDS programs, explaining, “We have to call a spade a spade, and a perverted human being a perverted human being.”

Senator Helms’s scorn was not reserved for gay men.  In opposition to the nomination of Roberta Achtenberg, a nominee for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), he told the Washington Times and repeated to the Washington Post:  ”She’s not your garden-variety lesbian.” Rather, “she’s a damn lesbian. I’m not going to put a lesbian in a position like that.” 

Similarly with regard to race, a Wall Street Journal obituary described his racism in fundraising, noting that “[o]ne direct-mail plea… for his campaign read: ‘Your tax dollars are being used to pay for grade school classes that teach our children that CANNIBALISM, WIFE-SWAPPING, and the MURDER of infants and the elderly are acceptable behavior.’”  This is what he thought of Black people in North Carolina.

Senator Helms wielded homophobic and racist ideology like a sharp blade, referring to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and civil rights leaders as “communists and sex perverts.”  Senator Helms articulated these beliefs in the halls of Congress even when others in his home state and fellow senators began to disavow arcane, racist and sexist views—particularly as related to national policy concerns.

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Part of the global gag rule, the Helms Amendment prevents U.S. development assistance from reaching the most vulnerable girls and women in the poorest countries. (Jordan Uhl / Flickr)

However, Senator Helms’s record on women’s equality was unequivocally dangerous—to lingering effect.  The Helms Amendment prevents U.S. development assistance from reaching the most vulnerable girls and women in the poorest countries, including those that have been raped, suffered from incest, or sexually trafficked by rogue gangs. 

The policy has been deadly in war-torn countries where girls and women are particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation and unintended and unwanted pregnancies.

The Helms Amendment and other U.S. policies such as the Mexico City Policy (known as the global gag rule) shackle women abroad to the less than equal destinies politically imposed on them.  Both laws undermine the creation of vital reproductive health infrastructures and result in the full-scale ban of abortion and sometimes difficulties in obtaining contraception. 

In some developing countries that receive U.S. foreign aid, abortion is simply illegal and criminalized—even in cases of rape and incest.  Not surprisingly, then, in countries like El Salvador and Nicaragua, miscarriages are sometimes treated with suspicion and can lead to arrest and lengthy incarceration. 

For these reasons and more, members of Congress should join Reps. Jan Schakowksy (D-Ill.), Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Norma Torres (D-Calif.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.)—who are sponsoring the “Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act,” the first-ever legislation to repeal the Helms Amendment.

As they know, legal abortions are as safe as a penicillin shot.  Even in the U.S., a person is 14 times more likely to die by carrying a pregnancy to term than by having an abortion.

It’s time to repeal the Helms Amendment and replace it with sound policy that supports full reproductive healthcare access.  That is what women abroad deserve: our respect.  Coercive policies that undermine women’s privacy, autonomy and dignity should have no place among U.S. laws governing women at home or abroad.


Michele Bratcher Goodwin is a prolific thoughtleader on matters of constitutional law and health policy. In addition to Ms. magazine, Dr. Goodwin's commentary can be read in The Atlantic, The New York Times, the Nation, CNN and The L.A. Times, among others. She holds the Linda D. & Timothy J. O'Neill chair in constitutional law and global health policy at Georgetown Law School and serves as the co-faculty director of the O'Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law. She is the executive producer of Ms. Studios.