The Helms Amendment has restricted access to much-needed health care for nearly 50 years. It’s time for a change. Here’s why.
History of the Helms Amendment
When It Got on the Books
This policy was passed as an amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act in 1973 as part of backlash to the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision of the same year.
What It Says
The amendment prohibits the use of U.S. foreign assistance funds for the performance of abortion “as a method of family planning.”
Since it was enacted, this harmful policy has created significant barriers to accessing vital, lifesaving health care in some of the poorest countries in the world.
How Helms Hurts People
The policy restricts people’s ability to make their own personal medical decisions and denies access to comprehensive reproductive health care. And while the policy already prohibits funding abortion “as a method of family planning,” it has been over-implemented as a complete ban on U.S. funding for all abortion services — even in cases of rape, incest, or a life-threatening pregnancy.
Over the last two decades, many countries have relaxed their abortion laws. Even in countries where abortion is legal, however, barriers to accessing care may include a lack of knowledge about one’s legal rights, cultural stigma, financial hardship, geographic obstacles, and a scarcity of of trained health care providers. The Helms Amendment places an additional barrier between patients and the care to which they are legally entitled.
Congress: Repeal This Harmful Policy. Support Comprehensive Reproductive Health Care!
Abortion is essential health care. Politicians in the U.S. should not be able to deny anyone’s access to health services, including abortion, no matter where they live. It is time for the Helms Amendment to be repealed, allowing the use of U.S. funds for safe abortion services worldwide.
U.S. restrictions must not stand in the way of access to legal health care.
U.S. policy should explicitly support access to safe and legal abortion throughout the world, as a part of efforts to advance health, human rights, and gender equality.
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Abortion is health care — full stop. It is time to repeal the Helms Amendment.
Three Facts You Need to Know
1. Over 25 Million Unsafe Abortions Annually Occur Worldwide
Worldwide, there are more than 25 million unsafe abortions every year. Virtually all of these unsafe abortions take place in the Global South, where they are performed in legally restricted settings by unskilled individuals.
2. Abortion Laws Are More Liberal
Over the past 20 years, there has been a global trend in abortion law toward expanded legal access . Since 2000, 28 countries have expanded the legal grounds on which women can access abortion services — magnifying the impact of the Helms Amendment as a significant barrier to patients’ access to the care they want and need.
3. One in Three Women Experience Physical or Sexual Violence
One in three women in the world will experience violence in her lifetime, many before the age of 18. In some countries that figure can be as high as 70%. High rates of violence contribute to unintended pregnancy, complications in pregnancy, unsafe abortion, and maternal deaths in parts of the world where health systems remain weak and women and communities lack access to quality care. Young women are particularly vulnerable to both violence and unintended pregnancy — which forces many young women to give up school or become mothers before they are ready.
Country in Focus: Kenya
In June 2019, the Kenya High Court issued a landmark decision reaffirming that women and girls have the legal right to an abortion as mandated by the Kenyan constitution. The court found that the Ministry of Health had violated the rights of women and girls by authorizing the withdrawal of the “Standards and Guidelines for Reducing Morbidity and Mortality from Unsafe Abortion in Kenya.” This withdrawal had led to confusion around the status of legal abortion, and had discouraged medical providers from performing safe abortions for fear of criminal prosecution.
Many women still believe abortion is illegal in Kenya, and lawful medical providers are often harassed and targeted for meeting their constitutional obligation to provide access to safe and legal abortion.
The claw back on access to safe and legal abortion must not be viewed in isolation. There has been growing opposition to the realization of sexual and reproductive health and rights in Kenya, despite data showing that unsafe abortion accounts for nearly a quarter of all maternal deaths. As a result, little reprieve exists for women seeking abortion in medical settings. They have to contend with fearful providers, who are unaware they can legally perform abortion, as well as stigma based on relatively high incidence of unsafe abortion to date.
For more on the Helms Amendment, read:
Time for U.S. to Support Abortion for Rape Victims in Other Countries, by Cecile Richards, Oct. 17, 2014
An Unhappy Birthday: Helms Still Hurts, by Dawn Laguens, Dec. 17, 2014