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We must decolonize our global health systems — It’s time to repeal the Helms Amendment

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Shortly after his inauguration, President Biden took an important first step in restoring reproductive rights around the world when he rescinded the “Global Gag Rule.” The executive order began what President Biden has made a core tenet of his presidency: a period of healing from the destructive policies of the former administration. After four years of battling attacks on sexual and reproductive health and rights, advocates and policy experts are working together to ensure reproductive justice for all.

Rescinding the Global Gag Rule, which strips U.S. funding from foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) if they use their own money for abortion services or referrals, will help millions of women and girls around the world who are seeking reproductive and abortion care.

Now it’s time to end the lesser known, but equally harmful, Helms Amendment. Passed in 1973, the Helms Amendment restricts funds from the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act from being used for abortion care, even in countries where abortion is legal.

Recent data from the Guttmacher Institute shows that if the Helms Amendment were lifted and the U.S. helped ensure that all abortions were performed safely in countries where abortion is legal on at least some grounds, there could be 19 million fewer unsafe abortions and thousands fewer maternal deaths each year.

The U.S. government is the No. 1 funder of health care around the world and helps clinics in low- to middle-income countries provide essential services to their communities. Enabling better health outcomes for everyone, no matter where they live, continues to be important to Americans, especially amid the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.

Abortion is health care, and the Helms Amendment has got to go.

Repealing the Helms Amendment means supporting nations that want better health outcomes and allowing individuals to have control over their sexual and reproductive health. Everyone — including people living in low-to-middle income countries — deserves the safety and dignity of basic health care, including comprehensive reproductive health care. That means more access to preventative screenings like Pap smears, testing and care for sexually transmitted infections and HIV/AIDS, and safe abortion and contraception, all with self-determination and respect.

We know that in times of crisis, women and girls are often disproportionately affected. During the COVID-19 pandemic, health systems have been overwhelmed by the emergency response, and sexual and reproductive health services have become even more inaccessible. Allowing the full use of U.S. Foreign Assistance will enable health care providers in other countries to keep their doors open and safely provide those vital sexual and reproductive health care services.

Despite this, a policy dating back to 48 years ago continues to block doctors and providers’ ability to provide abortion care and services. Created by the late Sen. Jesse Helms, the Helms Amendment is nothing more than an attempt to control Black and Brown people all over the world by making it impossible for millions to access abortion. In addition to worsening health outcomes globally, keeping the Helms Amendment in place upholds his legacy of discrimination.

Recent research reveals that there are 121 million abortions globally each year and that they occur regardless of country income, region of the world, or legal status of abortion. The difference is the safety, quality, and dignity of the care provided. Despite desperate and dishonest claims to the contrary, the Helms Amendment does not reduce the need for or number of abortions. Rather, it drives people to seek abortion in unsafe conditions. Amid a maternal mortality crisis, the Helms Amendment worsens maternal health outcomes, increasing cases of maternal mortality, and makes it harder for women to gain economic security. By taking away options for abortion, the Helms Amendment is also hurting the global economy and preventing more people from rising out of poverty.

U.S. policy should support access to comprehensive health care, not leave women and girls around the world without safe abortion options.

That is why we reintroduced the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act to repeal the Helms Amendment. The bill permanently repeals the Helms Amendment language that restricts the U.S. Foreign Assistance funds, and replaces it with proactive language saying that U.S. funding shall be used to provide comprehensive reproductive health care services and information including the provision of abortion services, training, and equipment.

The Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act is co-lead by Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Diane DeGette (D-Colo.), Norma Torres (D-Calif.), and Marilyn Strickland, and has over 130 co-sponsors. Its time has come

Schakowsky represents Illinois’ 9th District and is a member of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus, Marilyn Strickland represents Washington’s 10th District and is a member of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus, and Diana DeGette represents Colorado’s 1st District and is co-chair of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus.

Tags Abortion Ayanna Pressley Barbara Lee Diana DeGette Global health Helms Amendment Jackie Speier Joe Biden Norma Torres Reproductive health

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