Reproductive Rights Advocates Call for Biden to Curb Foreign Abortion Restrictions

A coalition of over 140 reproductive rights and health care advocates asked President Biden to provide the same bold leadership on abortion that he has shown in other areas such as climate change, jobs and infrastructure.

Reproductive Rights Advocates Call for Biden to Curb Foreign Abortion Restrictions
reproductive-rights-biden-foreign-abortion-restrictions-helms-hyde
A January 2020 abortion rally in D.C. (Hillel Steinberg / Flickr)

A coalition of over 140 reproductive rights and health care advocates is calling on President Biden to mitigate the harm caused by the over-implementation of U.S. foreign aid restrictions, especially the 50-year-old Helms Amendment, which has limited access to and information about abortion overseas.

In the April 29 letter, advocates highlighted the direct harm these restrictions cause women, especially victims of conflict-related sexual violence, and their violation of the U.S.’s human rights obligations to ensure gender equality and non-discriminatory, comprehensive health care. While these restrictions were enacted by Congress, the coalition is advocating for the Biden administration to curb their impact and support efforts currently underway to repeal them—both to fulfill his stated policy of support for sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) and to provide the same bold leadership on abortion that he has shown in other areas such as climate change, jobs and infrastructure.

The Helms Amendment limits U.S. foreign aid only from funding abortion as a method of family planning. But foreign aid recipients, fearful of running afoul of the Helms Amendment’s mandates, have interpreted this prohibition broadly as a total ban on funding for abortion services. Successive administrations have done nothing to clarify the misinterpretation, such as by specifying that funds may be used for abortions in cases of rape, incest or life endangerment, which is crucial in humanitarian emergency settings.

A study by the Guttmacher Institute estimates that repealing U.S. foreign aid restrictions would result in 19 million fewer unsafe abortions, 12 million fewer women suffering abortion-related medical complications, and 17,000 fewer maternal deaths worldwide.

Reproductive Rights Advocates Call for Biden to Curb Foreign Abortion Restrictions
reproductive-rights-biden-foreign-abortion-restrictions-helms-hyde
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)

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


To clarify pervasive misperceptions that have had such a devastating impact on women’s health abroad, the coalition—a diverse group including Amnesty International USA, Catholics for Choice and the American Medical Students Association—is calling on Biden to take affirmative steps to reduce the scope of discriminatory U.S. foreign aid restrictions and to go further by supporting action to repeal them. Specifically, advocates are calling on Biden to:

  • clarify that US foreign assistance can be used for abortion in cases of rape, incest and life-endangerment;
  • issue guidance to clarify that U.S. foreign assistance can be used for abortion information and counseling, as provided by the Leahy Amendment; and
  • ensure that his newly-formed Gender Policy Council focuses on SRHR, especially the removal of abortion funding restrictions.

The coalition also urges Biden to support H.R. 1670, the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act, sponsored by over 140 House members, which would repeal permanently the Helms Amendment, and to remove Helms language from his annual budget proposal.

Coalition advocates are encouraging the Biden administration to assume a leadership role to protect SRHR abroad—both to repudiate the “untold damage to global health systems,” especially SRHR, caused by the Trump administration and to follow through on Biden’s pledge to resume U.S. leadership internationally, especially on human rights.

To highlight that non-discriminatory access to all health care, including abortion, is a fundamental international human right, the coalition calls for more comprehensive action to the recent U.S. Universal Periodic Review, an examination that takes place approximately every five years at the U.N. Human Rights Council of every member states’ human rights record.

In March, the Biden administration responded to SRHR recommendations made at the U.S.’s recent review, including calls by the United Kingdom and the Netherlands to repeal the Helms Amendment and mitigate its harms, by pointing to the its January revocation of the global gag rule and instruction to withdraw from the Geneva Consensus.

To truly lead on ensuring SRHR and abortion access internationally, the coalition is asking the Biden administration to do much more. This call is part of a broader 100-day assessment of the Biden administration, such as the “report card” issued by Equity Forward that declares what’s missing on many topics, including reproductive rights, “is boldness—the kind that moves beyond repair and into advancement.” With respect to SRHR specifically, Biden has not used the word “abortion” or forthrightly proclaimed support for abortion or Roe v. Wade—leading Renee Bracey Sherman, executive director of We Testify, to lament that Biden’s campaign slogan of “Build Back Better” is apparently “for everybody else except abortion, where we get, ‘Build Back the Minimum.’

President Biden, a devoted Catholic, may be concerned that taking a bolder stance would lead to pushback from the religious right, which has galvanized a well-organized anti-abortion lobby and successfully spearheaded the imposition of sweeping and far-reaching abortion restrictions at the state and federal level during the Trump administration. A strong abortion rights stance would risk backlash from these anti-abortion groups, such as the Susan B. Anthony List, whose leader recently warned that Democrats support abortion “at their own political peril.” The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is also considering withholding communion from abortion supporters, in part to pressure Biden on abortion.

The coalition is pressing Biden to protect SRHR and abortion rights internationally using bold and broad leadership, despite the potential personal and political backlash, which he has done with respect to almost all other items on his agenda. With the midterm elections threatening to undo the Democrat’s razor-thin legislative majority , the new conservative majority at the Supreme Court making Roe’s protections precarious, and the recent spate of state-level abortion restrictions severely curtailing women’s choices, robust executive leadership to support abortion has never been more crucial. The coalition is hoping for Biden to implement just that—a resolute, progressive vision with respect to SRHR, including abortion—rather than continuing to take only tentative, piecemeal steps.

You may also like:


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

About

Michelle Onello is a human rights lawyer and senior counsel at the Global Justice Center, a non-profit advocating for gender equality and reproductive rights in international law, and a signatory of the letter urging President Biden to repeal the Helms Amendment.