As the president of Catholics for Choice, I am urging President Biden to center his Catholic upbringing and support this landmark legislation to repeal the Helms Amendment.
On Tuesday, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), senior chief deputy whip and chair of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus Providers and Clinics Task Force, reintroduced the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act—landmark legislation that would repeal the decades-old Helms Amendment, which currently prohibits U.S. foreign assistance funding for abortion care.
Helms is similar to the global gag rule, also known as the “Mexico City policy,” an executive action repeatedly issued by Republican presidents (and rescinded by Democratic presidents). The global gag rule not only prohibits U.S. foreign aid for abortion care—it goes even further than Helms, prohibiting international organizations receiving U.S. funding from even so much as using their existing, non-U.S. funding to counsel or refer vulnerable people to abortion care services, even if they don’t provide them.
Both the Helms Amendement and the global gag rule are immediate threats to comprehensive health care for women and gender diverse persons, and both need to be permanently repealed.
As the president of Catholics for Choice, I am urging President Biden to center his Catholic upbringing in championing individual conscience, prioritizing justice and ensuring this bill has the full support of his administration.
The Helms Amendment is the international equivalent of the Hyde Amendment, the current domestic policy that prohibits taxpayer dollars from being allocated directly for abortion care. Like the Hyde Amendment, Helms places an extraordinary burden on the rights of pregnant people—particularly Black and Brown women, trans men and non-binary people—who are denied access to life-saving health care simply because of the irrational grip of extremist religious factions in the U.S. government.
When we hear those in power talk about religious freedom, this is the kind of government overreach that should concern all of us—brought upon by those who weaponize faith against vulnerable communities for no better reason than regulating the private lives of strangers, regardless of threats to life and privacy.
I am a Catholic theologian and run the largest organization in the United States dedicated to centering the Catholic belief of respecting individual conscience in all matters. I believe there is no greater threat to the respect of all faith backgrounds than permitting one particular religious ideology to arbitrate the choices of all individuals, regardless of how their own beliefs align with those extremely narrow policies.
Yet, this goes further than religious freedom. The Helms Amendment is rooted in white supremacist beliefs—not only for the way it disproportionately harms communities of color, particularly Black and Brown women, but in the history of its namesake.
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). Upon announcement of his retirement in 2001, Helms was described by one Washington Post columnist as “the last prominent unabashed white racist politician in this country.”
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.
Abortion is health care, and health care is a human right. It doesn’t matter if it’s a pregnant person in the United States or halfway around the world; if our country claims a mantle of safeguarding human rights globally, it has an obligation to ensure reproductive freedom to the best of its ability. When our government hides behind a blatantly racist law like the Helms Amendment, it is has made a choice to directly harm women of color and gender diverse persons around the world.
I take President Biden at his word when he expresses care and concern for those most vulnerable in our society, both at home and abroad. Now that he is in a position of power, with his party controlling Congress, it is time to put an end to this racist, deadly policy, once and for all.
It is not just my Catholicism or President Biden’s Catholicism that compels us to ensure life-saving health care for those in need; it’s the Catholicism of anyone honest enough about Christ’s teachings to fight for those struggling to live through extraordinarily dire circumstances. These are the moments our faith teaches us to seek out. I urge President Biden to embrace this moment before us.