The Onerous Toll of the Helms Amendment and What Obama Can Do To Change It


It’s been almost three years since President Obama repealed the global gag rule, one of the most ludicrous and paternalistic U.S. foreign policies in history. But as we celebrate the anniversary of its repeal, just one day after the anniversary of Roe v. Wade on January 22nd, another matter deserves our attention.

The last stronghold of America’s oppressive overseas reproductive health policies, the Helms Amendment, is still alive and well. The 1973 amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act restricts U.S. funding for abortion overseas – even in countries where abortion is legal. Specifically, it states:

“No foreign assistance funds may be used to pay for the performance of abortion as a method of family planning or to motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions.”

The Helms Amendment invented what the global gag rule caricatured: a foreign policy that explicitly intrudes on the lives of women in developing countries, singling out and stigmatizing ‘abortion’ from the continuum of reproductive care necessary for a healthy life. Yet we’ve heard relatively little of this “grandfather” of anti-choice policies over the past 40 years, and all the while its colonial specter has continued to haunt the United State’s legacy of global reproductive rights.

Some are now aruing publicly for change. In late-December, 12 Members of Congress, including Representatives Lois Capps, Pete Stark, and Jan Schakowsky,  sent a letter to President Obama  asking for a formal review of the policy for the first time in history.

“We are concerned that the Helms Amendment – which restricts but does not prohibit abortion funding – is being implemented as though it were an absolute ban,” the letter stated.

The letter is a first step toward addressing a policy that has undermine the rights and health of women throughout the world for far too long. 

Although Helms prohibits U.S. aid from directly supporting abortion services, it is supposed to allow for the provision of abortion counseling and referrals, post-abortion care, and abortion in cases of rape, incest, and danger to the life of the woman. Years of careful tracking and documentation work on the part of reproductive rights groups, spearheaded by Ipas and the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) have produced clear evidence that in reality, these exceptions exist in theory but not in practice.

“Despite provisions allowing foreign-assistance funding for abortion services under certain circumstances, for almost 40 years the Helms Amendment has been implemented improperly as a total ban on all abortions,” CRR said in a statement released last month.

If this sounds eerily familiar, it should. While the gag rule has been officially rescinded, it seems the Helms Amendment has continued to function in effectively the same way. Primarily due to the clumsy wording of the amendment (what constitutes “abortion as a method of family planning” and what counts as “motivating” abortion?), and the long history of the use of women’s rights to full reproductive health care as a political football, application of the policy in-country among aid workers and recipients has veered drastically toward banning and self-censorship. Groups like Ipas and CRR, along with a small group of legislators, are asking President Obama to issue clarifying guidance to ensure the proper implementation of the policy.

The groups suggest that the Helms Amendment has contributed to an overall environment of censorship, stigma, and misinformation around abortion, resulting in barriers to services and consequent deaths and injuries. For example, Nepal’s abortion law was liberalized in 2002. Yet Ipas found that despite this, and even after the repeal of the global gag rule, abortion was omitted entirely from formal USAID trainings, discussions, and manuals, and abortion groups were informally excluded from partner meetings on national reproductive health strategies.

As abortion is singled out, reproductive health services become fragmented, drastically reducing the likelihood that women will receive these services at all even under “legal” circumstances. The situation is not likely to be much better in any other country receiving U.S. international assistance, including countries where rape is being regularly employed as a weapon of war. This is disturbing when you consider that global aid funding is supposed to “help” in the most fundamental way, not harm. Unsafe abortion remains a leading cause of maternal mortality in the developing world, and that is clearly thanks in part to the Helms Amendment.

This seems to be something that everyone should care about. That the Helms Amendment exists in the first place should incite reproductive (and human) rights advocates – it is ties assistance to an ideology that flouts medical and scientific evidence and the reality of women’s lives. It should further incite us that this policy is being twisted to create additional obstacles for women in some of the most vulnerable places in the world. Yet the Helms Amendment remains a policy largely un-touched by pro-choice groups and rarely covered in the media. 

The Hyde Amendment, which is basically the domestic version of the Helms Amendment, turned 35 just months ago, an anniversary that provided an opportunity to highlight the unjust, classist, and oppressive nature of a policy that most deeply affects low-income women in the United States. The coverage was terrific and widespread, delving into the history and implications of the policy, and even providing a helpful framework of lessons for activists.  Yet in all this, Helms was barely mentioned.

This is disappointing and problematic, because the two are so intimately connected. The Congressional letter to President Obama begins, “We are Members of Congress committed to reproductive rights at home and abroad…”. That line, at home and abroad, is pivotal. These policies do not exist in a vacuum, and neither do the anti-woman ideologies propelling them and keeping them in place. Their inceptions were related and if advocates are to successfully repeal them, those efforts, too, may have to be related. 

Recent efforts to drag the Helms Amendment into the light come at a critical time.  Last month, the administration announced an historic National Plan of Action on Women, Peace, and Security, an executive order that puts women at the center of U.S. foreign policy. President Obama has talked the talk, now he is being asked to walk the walk. The president can ask the relevant agencies to review their policies and make guidance on the Helms Amendment and its exceptions crystal clear. He can issue an executive order ensuring that funding streams are not burdened by overly broad interpretations of an already-heninous law. The decision is in the Administration’s hands.  It is too soon to know what the outcome will be, but it seems at least the wheels may be starting to turn.

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