The Helms Amendment: 47 Years of Denying U.S. Support for International Reproductive Health and Rights

The Biden-Harris administration offers some hope for international reproductive health, rights and justice—but unless the Helms Amendment is repealed, people in low-to-middle income countries will continue to be denied access to abortion services. 

The Helms Amendment: 47 Years of Denying U.S. Support for International Reproductive Health and Rights
A pro-choice activist in Brisbane, Australia, in September 2018. (Wikimedia Commons)

For the past four years, the Trump administration has systematically attempted to roll back sexual and reproductive health and rights globally. Their anti-rights attacks put the United States at odds with the rest of the world and diminish its historical leadership on global health and human rights.

Not only must President-Elect Biden adopt a bold agenda to undo the harms inflicted by Trump’s anti-rights policies, but his administration and Congress must proactively repeal all U.S. foreign policies that prohibit access to abortion services. This includes supporting the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act, which repeals the Helms Amendment and was introduced by Rep. Jan Schakowsky  (D-Ill.) this summer. 

“As the largest government funder of global health, including family planning and reproductive health services, the United States should be stepping up and doing everything we can to prevent negative maternal health outcomes,” said Schakowsky.

‘But instead we have archaic language that creates an arbitrary line between abortion and all other health-care services, limiting access to critical care, particularly in the Global South. It is plain wrong for the United States to force a health care provider in another country to choose between limiting the care they can give to patients and keeping critical funding. Doctors pledge to do no harm.” 

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The Helms Amendment was signed into law as part of the Foreign Assistance Act on Dec. 17, 1973, after being authored by then-Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), a politician well-known for his racist and discriminatory positions. The amendment prohibits the use of any U.S. foreign assistance funds for “abortion as a method of family planning.”

In effect, it is implemented as a ban on funding for abortion and denies millions of mostly Black and brown people in low-to-middle income countries the health care they need and want. 

Restricting U.S. foreign aid for abortion is harmful to the health and well-being of people around the world. Barriers to accessing abortion care too often mean that people’s only option is to seek an abortion in conditions that are considered unsafe —globally, more than 35 million people have abortions in unsafe conditions each year. As a result, tens of thousands of people die and millions more face dangerous injuries and complications. 

In July, Schakowsky—a senior chief deputy whip and chair of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus Providers and Clinics Task Force—introduced the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act, with original co-sponsors 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.).

The bill is currently cosponsored by more than 120 representatives in the 116th Congress.  This was the first time in 47 years that members of Congress have introduced standalone legislation to repeal the Helms Amendment. 

“When people aren’t allowed to make their own reproductive health decisions, and have limited access to vital health care, it has dire consequences for their health. It costs lives,” said Schakowsky. “If we are serious about racial and reproductive justice worldwide, then we must repeal the Helms Amendment—and that is exactly what we intend to do.”

The Biden-Harris administration can show Americans, and the rest of the world, that they stand for reproductive freedom by supporting the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act. It’s time to end nearly five decades of harm. 

What Can the Biden Administration Do to Repeal the Helms Amendment?

Immediately upon taking office, President Biden must issue an executive order stating his administration’s commitment to protect sexual and reproductive rights and expand access to comprehensive reproductive health care, including abortion, not only in the United States but globally.

The new administration has committed to rescinding the global gag rule (also known as the ‘Mexico City policy’), a presidential memorandum that prohibits foreign organizations that receive U.S. global health assistance from using their own funds to provide abortion services, information, counseling or referrals and from engaging in advocacy to expand abortion access.

But with the Helms Amendment in place, the largest government funder of reproductive health in the world—the U.S. government—continues to neglect, stigmatize and separate abortion care.

A broad coalition of global reproductive health and rights advocacy, research, and service delivery organizations has been working to mitigate and address the harms caused by Helms for years. The Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act is currently endorsed by more than 115 organizations. 

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About and

Anu Kumar is the president and CEO of Ipas, an international nonprofit working with partners around the world to advance reproductive justice by expanding access to abortion and contraception.
Bethany Van Kampen Saravia is a senior legal and policy advisor for Ipas, where she leads their U.S. abortion foreign policy work, specifically efforts to repeal the Helms Amendment. Prior to joining Ipas, she worked as a senior policy analyst at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice and as a legislative fellow in the office of Sen. Barbara Boxer (Calif.). She received her law degree and master of social work from Tulane University, where she co-founded and served as president of If/When/How and was a member of the Tulane Domestic Violence Law Clinic and the Legislative and Administrative Advocacy Clinic.