Helms Hurts

A 41-year-old U.S. policy prevents millions of women worldwide from accessing safe, legal reproductive care.


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For Roselyn, a reproductive health care worker in Uganda—where abortion is legal in some circumstances but very difficult to access—death is an everyday part of her job due to the high incidence of unsafe abortions. She knows more keenly than most that restricting access to abortion care does not diminish its need, it only makes women more desperate.

“They do everything!” says Roselyn. “I heard of one recently, where they told her to use a stick and pass it through her birth canal, and hit until the [fetus] comes out. I remember another case where the girl, she was told to keep hitting her stomach [with] a stone.” Herbal concoctions, detergents, foreign objects—Roselyn and her coworkers have seen it all.

Unsafe abortion, a leading cause of maternal mortality, leads to the death of more than 47,000 women across the globe each year. Another five million sustain debilitating injuries. These are eminently preventable tragedies, and perhaps the most alarming part is the complicit role that the United States plays in perpetuating them.

The culprit: a 41-year-old policy, sponsored by the late archconservative Senator Jesse Helms, that has been used to block the use of U.S. foreign assistance funds to pay for abortion care.

Although 1973’s watershed Roe v. Wade decision brought safe, legal abortion access to women across the United States, opponents of the ruling quickly set to work limiting the reach of its impact.

Enacted in the same year as Roe, the Helms Amendment prohibits the use of U.S. foreign assistance in the “performance of abortions as a method of family planning.” Yet the restriction has been wrongly implemented by all eight presidential administrations since its inception, as a total ban on abortion care—even in instances of rape, incest, or the endangerment of the mother’s life.

Despite significant progress around the globe expanding reproductive rights over the last 20 years, Helms prevents millions of women from accessing safe, essential reproductive care that is legal in their countries.

“There is no defensible reason why the Helms Amendment should continue to be implemented as an all-out ban,” says Aram Schvey, senior policy counsel and manager of projects and operations at the Center for Reproductive Rights. “Clearly, abortions in emergency situations are not undertaken ‘as a method of family planning.’ Even U.S. domestic policy makes exceptions—for military personnel and immigrant detainees, among many others—to fund abortion care in these circumstances.”

Because the majority of U.S.-supported health care programs and clinics are found in the world’s least developed countries, Helms inflicts the greatest harm in regions where women are most financially bereft and where rape and domestic violence are all too common. Hardest hit is sub-Saharan Africa.

“The lives and health of women worldwide are too important to let this draconian policy continue any longer,” says Schvey. “Someday, we will repeal Helms altogether, but in the meantime, this is something the Obama administration—an administration with a strong record on women’s issues—can take immediate action to remedy. It’s an easy and essential fix.”