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It’s past time to be rid of the legacy of Jesse Helms

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You’ve likely never heard of the Helms Amendment, or perhaps not until now that Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), along with Reps. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) and Norma Torres (D-Calif.), have introduced legislation to repeal it. But our guess is you’ve heard of the late North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms.

In 1973, Helms, an outspoken opponent of civil rights — really, he opposed rights for anyone not white, male, heterosexual, American and Christian — introduced the Helms Amendment. The policy prohibits any U.S. foreign assistance funds from being used for “the performance of abortion as a method of family planning.” As written, the Helms Amendment allows for the provision of abortion information and counseling in cases of rape, incest and if a woman’s life is in danger. But in effect, it has been interpreted as a total ban on abortion-related services and information in developing countries.  

This policy hurts. Because of the amendment, millions of people around the world are unable to exercise their own reproductive rights, and they’re deprived of the health care they want and need. The policy denies health care providers life-saving equipment and training. It has meant that critical health information is censored to remove references to abortion. Every year, there are more than 35 million unsafe abortions worldwide that cause millions of injuries and tens of thousands of deaths. The Helms Amendment makes this crisis worse. 

Indeed, the U.S. government has politicized abortion since the Helms Amendment was enacted nearly 50 years ago — the policy strips abortion away from basic reproductive health care and it is Black and Brown women who bear the burden of this discriminatory and deeply unjust policy abroad, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. The Helms Amendment is the international counterpart to the domestic Hyde Amendment, which, along with related laws, bans federal insurance coverage of abortion and hits those who are struggling financially, who are more likely to be women of color, immigrants and young people, hardest. And it is also related to the Global Gag Rule, which Republican presidents use to expand the restrictions already imposed by the Helms Amendment, and prohibits foreign nongovernmental organizations that receive U.S. global health funds from using their own funds to engage in abortion-related work.  

Our colleague, Monica Oguttu, a midwife trained and founder of the Kisumu Medical Education Trust (K-MET) in Kenya, has told us that because of the Helms Amendment, many women, particularly those in rural parts of the country, have few options to safely end an unplanned pregnancy. So they end up resorting to a “quack”— someone who is untrained or uses dangerous methods to perform abortion. Health service providers rely on the United States for important funding to provide integrated, life-saving care, regardless of who they are or what their health needs.

Some may say that this is “just” about abortion. True, but abortion is about power: the power to control your own body; the power to control your future; the power to decide what you want to do with your life and how you want to care for those around you.  

Make no mistake, the Helms Amendment is all about limiting people’s power to make their own decisions about their bodies, their health and their families. But it’s only certain people that are most impacted by this policy — Black and Brown individuals living in the Global South. It’s their lives that are endangered and their futures at risk — people with no voting power in the United States and no say in U.S. foreign policy. That’s why we say the Helms Amendment is rooted in oppression — in patriarchy, white supremacy and the exploitation of Black and Brown people.  

COVID-19 and the deaths of George Floyd and so many other Black Americans have pulled the curtain back and exposed the harmful effects of systemic racism, and the socioeconomic and health disparities that exist throughout our global society — a reality the Black community has known for far too long. And as the largest government funder of global health, including family planning and reproductive health services, the United States plays a vital role in improving public health around the world.  

We shouldn’t be a barrier to empowering women and promoting gender equality, or to upholding human rights. We have a chance to change. It’s time to pass the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act. It’s time to repeal Helms. And it’s time to make sure U.S. policies around the world live up to our values: respect, freedom and equality. 

Anu Kumar is the president and CEO of Ipas, an international reproductive health and human rights organization, which was founded in 1973, in North Carolina.

Serra Sippel is president of CHANGE (the Center for Health and Gender Equity), a U.S. nongovernmental organization that advocates for sexual and reproductive health and rights for women and girls and others who face stigma and discrimination. 

Tags anti-abortion Ayanna Pressley Barbara Lee black and brown bodies Diana DeGette discriminatory policies Global health Health care Helms Amendment International law Jackie Speier Jan Schakowsky Jesse Helms Nita Lowey Norma Torres pro-abortion pro-choice women's right to choose

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