Congress Should Repeal the Helms Amendment

Source: Newsweek

Congressional pushback against draconian reproductive health policies just kicked up a notch.

Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) reintroduced the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere ActIt would effectively repeal the Helms Amendment, which has been undermining reproductive health outcomes since the Nixon administration.

The Helms Amendment prohibits using any U.S. foreign assistance funding for “abortion as a method of family planning.” If the U.S. is to repair the damage former President Donald Trump did to reproductive health and rights, especially the damage caused abroad, repealing Helms is a critical, long overdue step for several reasons.

The Helms Amendment is unjust.

It effectively denies millions of people safe, affordable reproductive health care. It subjects pregnant people living in low- and middle-income countries, primarily people of color, to regressive abortion restrictions in which they have no say.

Passed in 1973, the amendment has been wrongly interpreted by Republican and Democratic policymakers alike as an outright ban on any abortion-related services and information–even in cases of rape, incest, or a life-threatening pregnancy.

It’s also egregiously bad health policy.

The U.S. invests more than $1 billion a year in improving maternal and child health in developing nations, yet Helms undermines these efforts, without even serving the stated rationale of preventing abortions.

We know that people still seek abortions regardless of restrictions.

Despite policies like Helms, more than 35 million women and girls have unsafe abortions every year, resulting in millions of serious injuries and nearly 50,000 deaths. Unsafe abortions are one of the leading causes of maternal mortality worldwide.

Research estimates that by repealing policies like Helms and restoring funding for safe abortion globally, the U.S. could reduce unsafe abortions by 72 percent, unintended pregnancy by 68 percent and maternal deaths by 62 percent.

As a leader in international health funding and foreign assistance, the U.S. has a moral responsibility to improve global health. U.S. policies should not be making it harder for people to access necessary care, especially when the data is clear that Helms is quite literally costing people their lives.

This is doubly true during a global pandemic.

Health facilities around the world are overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients, making access to safe reproductive health care even more difficult. People do not stop needing or wanting reproductive health care during a pandemic. On the contrary, these services are as necessary as ever.

At the same time, Helms is failed foreign policy.

The amendment has been criticized as being imperialistic, for good reason. Many nations are expanding the grounds on which people can access reproductive health services, while also boosting the quality and safety of abortion care. Helms undermines the efforts of nations receiving foreign assistance from the U.S. to liberalize their abortion laws and improve access to safe and legal abortion services.

The Helms Amendment is undemocratic because it seeks to impose an agenda most Americans don’t support. Recent polling shows that a majority of Americans support funding global health programs that provide comprehensive reproductive health services, abortion included. The same poll showed a majority of Americans want to repeal Helms.

U.S. reproductive health policy has been dominated in recent years by a far-right ideology out of touch with the beliefs and sentiments of most Americans. It’s time to bring it back into alignment.

If passed, the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act would permit U.S. foreign assistance for comprehensive reproductive health care services and information, including abortion services, training and equipment.

In its early days, the Biden administration took welcomed first steps in undoing dangerous Trump-era policies, but that work is far from done.

If it wants to make good on its promise to protect sexual and reproductive health and rights globally, the administration should work with Congress to pass the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act and commit to veto any legislation that extends, reiterates, or incorporates Helms.

This op-ed by Vina Smith-Ramakrishnan, who is a Werner Fornos Fellow with the Population Institute, originally ran on March 11, 2021 in Newsweek.