Democrats repeal prohibition on funding abortions abroad

Greg Nash

House Democrats on Wednesday passed for the first time in more than half a century a State Department and foreign assistance spending bill that does not include the Helms Amendment, a provision that blocks U.S. funding for women’s health services related to abortions.

The state, foreign operations and related programs bill, an annual appropriations package that lays out U.S. foreign funding priorities, excludes text from the Helms Amendment for the first time since it was introduced in 1973.

The legislation also included a permanent repeal of the Global Gag Rule, a measure that prohibited U.S. funding for organizations that provide access to, or information about abortions, even if American dollars are not used for those services. 

The full spending bill passed in a vote of 217 to 212, with three Democrats voting no.

“We are proud to be permanently repealing the Global Gag Rule: a dangerous rule that deprives the poorest families in the world a basic health care and family planning services,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said on the House floor Wednesday evening. 

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Chairwoman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs, welcomed the passage and highlighted the historic removal of the Helms amendment.

“I am especially proud to have fought for the elimination of Helms Amendment restrictions that have prohibited safe abortion and health care services for people in low-income countries for decades,” she said in a statement. 

It’s a tenuous victory for Democrats who repealed the amendment thanks to majorities, albeit slim, in the House and Senate, and with control of the White House.

Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky), the ranking member of the Appropriations subcommittee on foreign relations, railed against the provision as the most egregious section of the $62.24 billion spending bill.

“Of greatest concern is the removal of the most important condition in any state, foreign operations bill that no funds can be used to pay for abortion. The removal of that language is unprecedented,” Rogers said on the House floor on Wednesday.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who supports expanding U.S. funding for women’s health care abroad to include abortion services, acknowledged that the progress could be reversed if Republicans make gains in 2022, along with other key Democratic priorities related to voting rights.

“There are a lot of things to worry about if the Republicans take the House in 2022,” Schakowsky said in an interview with The Hill.

Schakowsky is the author of the Abortion is Healthcare Everywhere Act, which aims to permanently repeal and replace the Helms Amendment, which was reintroduced in March.

She said the passage of the state funding bill without the Helms Amendment is a moment of empowerment for women.

“But this is a moment, I think, for women — and that is a sense of empowerment at home and abroad that women are standing up and demanding in many arenas to have more rights but particularly to make these very personal decisions about themselves,” she said.

“They don’t want to see politicians anywhere making decisions like that for them. This, I think, is being viewed as a moment of opportunity for women here in the United States to make a difference for themselves here and around the world,” she added.

The text of the Helms Amendment prohibited U.S. funding abroad for services that performed abortions or were used to motivate or coerce individuals to practice abortions.

Democrats’ bill includes a provision that prohibits U.S. funding for coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization.

Opponents of the Helms Amendment say that the provision harms U.S. efforts to fund women’s health programs in countries where abortion is legal in some form and that the prohibition contributes to millions of unsafe abortions and thousands of maternal deaths each year.

They cite data from the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organization focused on reproductive rights.

The institute estimates that repealing the Helms Amendment will improve the health of women in at least 33 countries where abortions are legal in some form. This includes decreasing the number of unsafe abortions by 19 million, decreasing maternal deaths by 17,000 and reducing the number of women suffering complications from unsafe abortions by 12 million.

The institute further says that a repeal of the Helms Amendment is likely to contribute to health systems saving an estimated $641 million annually.

Democrats and abortion rights groups view the absence of the Helms Amendment from the state spending bill as the first step in a larger battle to ensure U.S. assistance for women’s health services that include abortion.

“This moment is truly historic,” said Bethany Van Kampen, senior policy adviser with Ipas, an international reproductive health and rights organization that focuses on access to contraception and abortion.

“It’s been almost 50 years, and this is the first vote on Helms repeal ever, since it began in 1973. To say that we are excited is an understatement. It really is history being made and it’s completely necessary,” she added.

Also included in the state spending bill related to global women’s health is $760 million for family planning and reproductive health services, an increase of $185 million from the previous year. It also provides $70 million for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), an increase of $37.5 million from the previous year.

Republicans opposed the increased funding for the UNFPA, alleging the organization is complicit in coercive abortions and involuntary sterilizations, a charge the UNFPA and Democrats reject.

“To make it very clear, UNFP has never, ever supported forced abortions anywhere — where I’ve heard that, it’s a lie,” Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.) said on the House floor.

Updated Thursday at 10:27 a.m.

Tags Abortion Barbara Lee Hal Rogers Helms Amendment Jan Schakowsky Lois Frankel Nancy Pelosi

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