Rep. Bella Abzug, a New York Democrat, was incensed standing on the House floor in late 1973. Earlier that year, the Supreme Court had ruled in Roe v. Wade that women had the right to an abortion. But, just months later, opponents of abortion rights were trying to undermine that right by placing new restrictions on how U.S. foreign assistance could be distributed.

Led by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), opponents wanted to include a provision in the Foreign Assistance Act of 1973 that would prohibit the use of U.S. foreign assistance for abortion “as a method of family planning.” Helms’ amendment, which eventually became law, was antithetical to that very notion of sovereignty, not to mention reproductive rights. And it still is.


Three years later Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) would succeed in further restricting abortion access by imposing a similar requirement in the United States.

Fast forward 45 years with Democrats having just won 40 seats—including electing a record number of women—in the 2018 midterms, House Democrats have the chance to introduce legislation to repeal the Helms and Hyde amendments to improve access to health care for women around the world.

Since the 1970s, countries have taken steps to liberalize their abortion laws and increase availability of services, including in low-income countries where U.S. development programs still operate. South Africa, Ghana, and Nepal, for example, are among the top recipients of U.S. foreign assistance and happen to have more relaxed abortion laws.

And, despite recent Republican attempts to cut funding, the United States is still the largest single bilateral donor of family planning and reproductive health programs, amounting to around $600 million annually.

But if women are seeking services at a clinic funded by the U.S. government, their “right” to abortion is seriously undermined due to this draconian U.S. law.

Even in the cases of rape, incest, or where a woman’s life or wellbeing are endangered—where abortion would not be considered “a method of family planning”—U.S. officials have denied women access to safe abortion care.

Fearful of losing funding and frequently conflating the Helms amendment with another harmful U.S. policy, the “Global Gag Rule,” which bars health care providers from even discussing abortion, health care providers withhold abortion-related counseling and information. This happens despite the fact that another U.S. law explicitly says that the Helms amendment does not ban doctors from counseling women about all pregnancy options. 

Kiefer Buckingham is senior policy advocate on public health issues at the Open Society Policy Center.