Achieving Reproductive Freedom: Ending Global Gag Rule and Helms Amendment Once and for All

Reintroduced in Congress on Tuesday, the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act is a major first step forward in addressing the legacy of the 48-year-old racist Helms Amendment.

Achieving Reproductive Freedom: Ending the Global Gag Rule and the Helms Amendment Once and for All
A pro-choice activist in Brisbane, Australia, in September 2018. (Wikimedia Commons)

On Tuesday, March 9, the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act was reintroduced in Congress for the second time. The bill—first introduced in July 2020—would permanently repeal the Helms Amendment, “[allowing] the United States to support the full range of sexual and reproductive health services that people want and need,” writes the Guttmacher Institute.

“The time has come,” said Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who re-introduced the act in the House of Representatives. “Abortion is health care and the Helms Amendment now has got to go.”

The Helms Amendment and Global Gag Rule Go Hand-in-Hand

Last year, Rep. Schakowsky’s introduction of the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act marked the first time the Helms Amendment had been challenged in the nearly fifty years it has existed, said Anu Kumar, president and CEO of Ipas.

This bill’s reintroduction this year comes on the heels of President Joe Biden’s Jan. 28 executive order rescinding the global gag rule, and the reintroduction of the Global Health, Empowerment and Rights (Global HER) Act on the same day, legislation with 177 co-sponsors in the House and 46 in the Senate aimed at permanently ending the global gag rule.

While the Helms Amendment essentially prohibits “U.S. foreign assistance funding from supporting safe abortion services around the world,” the global gag rule prevents nongovernmental organizations from using their own funds—not U.S. foreign assistance funding—from supporting abortion services.

The global gag rule and Helms Amendment “are reinforcing in the way that they act,” said Kumar during a Tuesday press call.

“Though lesser known [than the global gag rule], the Helms Amendment creates equal harm,” said Rep. Schakowsky.

An Amendment Steeped in Racism, Sexism and Colonialism

The Helms Amendment “actively discriminates against poor Black and Brown women,” said Kumar. This makes sense considering it was first introduced by Senator Jesse Helms—a man with little respect for women, people of color or the LGBTQ community, and proud of it.

Of Sen. Helms, Jamie L. Manson, the president of Catholics for Choice, writes:

The late Jesse Helms wore his support for systemic racism as a badge of honor throughout his career—from leading the filibuster against making Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a federal holiday, to threatening to incarcerate Black voters who failed to update voter registration addresses (one of the most jarring voter suppression tactics in recent memory). 

… It’s therefore no wonder why the Helms Amendment has been defined by the way it withholds available, common sense aid for impoverished women of color in especially oppressive regions of the world. This was never a policy meant to help any woman but meant to punish those women Helms deemed racially inferior.

Policies like global gag rule and Helms Amendment are “out of step with international standards and the recognition of abortion as a human right” and perpetuate U.S. paternalism and colonialism, said Ipas Ethiopia country director, Saba Kidanemariam, during the Tuesday press conference—calling the Helms Amendment “neocolonist in nature.”

Recipients of U.S. foreign assistance typically interpret the amendment as a total ban on abortion care and information, said both Kidanemariam and Kumar. It is an example of “colonized global health policy,” said Kumar; even the “Nixon administration recognized it as being colonialist” and found it ran against their attempts to decolonialize foreign assistance.

If you found this article helpful, please consider supporting our independent reporting and truth-telling for as little as $5 per month.

Recent Guttmacher Report Illustrates the Dire Need to Repeal Helms

“The Helms amendment prohibits the U.S. from supporting safe abortion services in countries, even where abortion is broadly legal,” Dr. Zara Ahmed, U.S. international policy officer at Guttmacher, told Ms.

Recent analysis from the Guttmacher Institute shows permanently repealing the Helms Amendment would lead to 19 million fewer unsafe abortions each year; 17,000 fewer maternal deaths; and the “overall number of maternal deaths due to abortion in these countries would decline by 98 percent.” Combine this with “a net savings of $641 million annually for the health system.”

It also “means respecting people to make the choices that are right for them and their family,” Ahmed told Ms. “So, yes, we absolutely are concerned about saving lives and saving money—but we are also about doing the right thing, and respecting people’s bodily autonomy, and having the respect for them to make the choices that they need.”

There is also broad support from the American public for the repeal of the Helms Amendment, Kumar said: A majority of Americans believe abortion should be safe and accessible and understand the consequences of creating barriers to abortion can be dire.

Achieving Reproductive Freedom: Ending Global Gag Rule and Helms Amendment Once and for All
By a 21-point margin, voters favor overturning the Helms Amendment—including 58 percent of men, 52 percent of women, 76 percent of Democrats and 47 percent of Independents. (Ipas)

The real problem lies in the lack of awareness around the Helms Amendment, as compared to the global gag rule. Both Rep. Schakowsky and Kumar said raising awareness about Helms is critical to finally eliminating it and beginning to contend with its history rooted in racism and white supremacy.

Permanently ending the global gag rule and Helms Amendment would put the United States back on the path of becoming a leader on global sexual and reproductive health and rights. According to Ahmed, being a leader in this realm means two things: financially contributing and leading on policy. While the U.S. has been a leader in financial contributions—though there is room for improvement there as well—policy is “where the U.S. has really fallen down.”

The Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act “is a major first step forward in addressing the legacy of this 48-year-old, clearly racist Helms Amendment” Ahmed said—but in order to be a true leader on sexual and reproductive health, the U.S. must permanently repeal the Helms Amendment, “end the global gag rule once and for all,” and “fully fund sexual and reproductive health and rights.”

The U.S. is still not funding enough. According to Guttmacher, “the full U.S. fair share of funding for international family planning and reproductive health programs is $1.66 billion per year.” Currently, “we’re funding about a third of that—so we’re leaving two thirds of our commitment unfulfilled,” said Ahmed.

Looking Ahead

Rep. Schakowsky is “confident” the bill will find enough support to make it out of the House, given the “vast” pro-abortion majority among the representatives. She even hopes for some Republican support, though she’s not holding her breath: “When I came to Congress, we had a bipartisan Pro-Choice Caucus. That has pretty much disappeared, so it looks like we’re going to have to rely on Democrats. … I’m optimistic we will be able to move this.”

The bill will likely have a tougher time in the Senate, admitted Rep. Schakowsky, citing the difficulty of the filibuster in ushering through progressive legislation—but alluded to “robust discussion” taking place in the Senate to try to get rid of this “undemocratic practice.”

It is undeniable: The U.S. must do better internationally and domestically on ensuring sexual and reproductive health and rights. Passing the Global HER Act and the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act would be an important step in the right direction. (Next up: We’re looking at you, Hyde.)

You may also like:

About and

Mariah A. Lindsay is an attorney and the senior executive policy fellow and coordinator of programs with the Center for Biotechnology and Global Health Policy at UCI Law. She is also a producer on the podcast "On the Issues with Michele Goodwin."
Roxanne Szal (or Roxy) is the managing digital editor at Ms. and a producer on the Ms. podcast On the Issues With Michele Goodwin. She is also a mentor editor for The OpEd Project. Before becoming a journalist, she was a Texas public school English teacher. She is based in Austin, Texas. Find her on Twitter @roxyszal.