The whole world is watching for Biden’s plan to protect abortion rights

The first year of Joe Biden’s presidency came to a close just days before the 49th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Roe v. Wade, which has served as the foundation for Americans’ right to abortion ever since. Yet, it could be the last anniversary we ever celebrate.

In the next six months, the Supreme Court is set to rule in a case aimed directly at dismantling the constitutional protections established by Roe. Given the realities of a conservative Supreme Court and gridlock in Congress, executive branch leadership and support of abortion is critical. The time is now for the Biden administration and federal agencies to take every measure necessary to protect abortion access. But it shouldn’t stop at creative domestic approaches — an international perspective is also needed.

In the early days of his term, President Biden rescinded a policy known as the “global gag rule.” This policy restricted foreign non-governmental organizations that receive U.S. global health funds from using their own resources to engage in abortion-related work. While rescinding this policy is to be commended, it is also a low bar that every other Democratic president has cleared in the first days of their presidencies since the policy was first enacted in 1985 by the Reagan administration. To demonstrate a real commitment to protecting sexual and reproductive rights around the world, the Biden administration must dismantle structural policies that allowed the global gag rule to exist in the first place.

The Helms amendment has prohibited any U.S. foreign aid from funding abortion as a method of family planning since 1973, and has been implemented as a total ban on abortion services, including in instances of rape, incest and life endangerment. It’s hard not see this policy as racist and neocolonial. It has restricted U.S. foreign assistance for abortion services, training and equipment, as well as abortion information and counseling. The Helms amendment denies abortion access in violation of fundamental human rights, stifles bodily autonomy and reproductive freedom, as well as devastates global health networks causing maternal deaths that disproportionately impact women of color.

Of course, Congress ultimately holds the power to repeal Helms in its entirety. But in the interim, the Biden administration must do all that it can to mitigate the harms of this dangerous policy. These actions include taking executive action and issuing guidance from relevant agencies to immediately clarify that U.S. foreign assistance funds can be used to support abortion care in cases of rape, incest or life endangerment of the pregnant person. These exceptions are congressionally permitted under Helms, but since the George W. Bush presidency, administrations have incorrectly interpreted it as a complete ban. Biden is well within his power to restore these original exceptions.

The Biden administration is not only failing to take real steps to counter Helms, it is actively and erroneously enforcing it. Last year, the Royal College of Obstetricians was scheduled to deliver a presentation on safe abortion care at a global health conference. USAID had the presentation canceled, citing a violation of the Helms amendment, even though providing information and counseling about abortion is specifically permitted under the Leahy amendment. What’s worse is that the Biden administration clearly saw the value of the research that would have been presented at the conference, as it was soon cited by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to lift burdensome restrictions on the abortion pill. 

The Biden administration should issue guidance from relevant agencies to proactively clarify that U.S. foreign assistance may be used for abortion information and counseling under the Leahy amendment. Biden has appointed a number of human rights and public health experts to senior positions in his administration and we hope they will see the urgency of the issue and act upon it.

We also can’t ignore the president and his administration’s refusal to say the word “abortion.” This is no small matter. Not using the word fuels stigma about abortion, and the president can’t credibly claim to be a champion of sexual and reproductive rights if he can’t even name a core sexual and reproductive right.

The Biden administration can also demonstrate robust support for global sexual and reproductive health and rights by eliminating Helms and all abortion coverage restrictions from its presidential budget. And, the president can and should champion Congressional efforts to permanently end Helms and all abortion funding restrictions. 

The anniversary of Roe is a perfect time for the Biden administration to reckon with the fact that the U.S. is far out of step with a global trend toward liberalizing abortion, and that U.S. foreign policy actively prohibits progress across the globe. Countries around the world, such as Mexico and Argentina, are in the process of liberalizing their abortion laws. Yet, 49 years after the court case that was supposed to cement the right to abortion forever, millions of Americans are facing a real possibility of outright abortion bans.

Now is the time for the president and this administration to take bold action to ensure the fundamental human right to abortion — both at home and abroad.

Anu Kumar is the president and CEO of Ipas, an organization that works around the world to advance reproductive justice by expanding access to abortion and contraception.

Akila Radhakrishnan is president of Global Justice Center, an international human-rights organization that promotes gender equality with a focus on sexual and reproductive rights and justice for sexual and gender-based violence.

Tags Abortion abortion access Akila Radhakrishnan Anu Kumar global gag rule International Joe Biden

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