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Global Gag Rule is just the tip of the iceberg: Why Repealing the Helms Amendment matters

The Triple Threat

We are living through one of the most turbulent moments of our nation’s history. Some of the challenges we face are new: a pandemic caused by a novel coronavirus, and a president who refuses to lead us through a global health crisis. Other issues have been with us for a long time: systemic racism in every fixture of our society, extreme socioeconomic inequalities made worse by the current recession, and a consistent and vicious attack on reproductive health care in the states and in our courts. After four years of battling attacks on sexual and reproductive health and rights, advocates and policy experts are looking to a brighter future for reproductive health and rights.

While we hope the Biden administration will rescind the Global Gag Rule (also called the “Mexico City Policy”), this is only the tip of the iceberg in achieving real change. Despite this executive action if restrictive policies like the Helms Amendment are still on the books, reproductive and economic freedom will continue to remain out of reach for millions worldwide.

For nearly 50 years, the Helms Amendment has prohibited any U.S. foreign assistance funds from being used for “the performance of abortion as a method of family planning.” Despite this legislative text the policy has been grossly misinterpreted and over-implemented to effectively act as a total ban on U.S. foreign aid being used for any abortion services abroad, even in cases of rape, incest and life endangerment. As a direct consequence, tens of thousands of people around the world have died due to lack of health care, even though many lived within eyesight of a U.S.-supported health clinic.

The Helms Amendment is misinterpreted as a ban on abortion services, counseling, and information — effectively anything related to abortion. This misinterpretation continues to occur despite the 1994 Leahy Amendment, which explicitly allows U.S.-funded information and counselling on abortion. Today, on its 47th anniversary, the prospect of finally repealing Helms once and for all and ensuring access to abortion care across the globe feels closer than it ever has to reality.

The Casualties

Research shows that the Global Gag Rule has actually increased the number of unsafe abortions, rather than decreased it, and also contributes to more unintended pregnancies and higher rates of maternal mortality. With extensive U.S. funding, we must consider: How much are we losing because of how our resources are restricted? As the largest government funder of global health, including family planning and reproductive health services, the United States should be stepping up and doing everything we can to prevent negative maternal health outcomes — not contributing to them.

Even if after the Global Gag Rule is rescinded, the Helms Amendment remains in place and all U.S. foreign assistance remains unavailable for anything related to abortion, including information or counselling about all legal pregnancy options — even in cases of rape, incest, and life endangerment. The Helms Amendment endangers women’s health and exacerbates the stigma around abortion by causing fear amongst providers and health system managers who worry that any association with abortion will jeopardize their overall U.S. funding. This lack of clarity around the Helms Amendment paralyzes well-meaning health care providers and prevents women, girls, transgender, and gender non-conforming people from receiving even basic health information.

We must also never forget that the Helms Amendment is a policy deeply rooted in racism.

Its author, former Sen. Jesse Helms, made no secret of his views on race. The Helms Amendment effectively allows the United States to control the health care and bodily autonomy of Black and Brown people around the world; that is what Jesse Helms wanted. It imposes our arbitrary and medically unnecessary abortion restrictions on international communities, hinders millions of individuals from being able to exercise their reproductive rights, and deprives them of the care they want and need. Just like the Global Gag Rule, the Helms Amendment puts reproductive and economic freedom out of reach for people of color in order to advance a conservative political agenda.

When U.S. foreign assistance restricts abortion care, information, and counseling, people suffer. Each year, nearly 35 million people are forced to resort to abortion by unsafe methods, putting their health and life at risk. The Helms Amendment must be legislatively repealed and that is why, this past summer, we introduced the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act, which would end the Helms Amendment once and for all.

Harmful foreign policies such as the Global Gag Rule and the Helms Amendment highlight how much the U.S. is out of step with the rest of the world. The need for access to safe abortion care is affirmed in international and regional human rights law. Every person is entitled to have the ability to decide whether, when and by what means to have a child or children. And while the Trump administration has worked to roll back the reproductive health and rights of people around the globe — many countries around the world have done the opposite, expanding access to abortion.

The Death Knell to Helms

Now, more than ever, we must stand up for reproductive health care as a human right in the United States and around the world. The Biden administration must take executive action on Day One to not only repeal the Global Gag Rule, but to end the Helms Amendment and to ensure that U.S. funding supports abortion services, information, and counseling. The Biden administration must repeal the Helms Amendment, and firmly oppose the Hyde Amendment and any and all other discriminatory abortion riders that block access to comprehensive reproductive care.

And we can’t stop there. Congress must pass both the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act to permanently repeal the Helms Amendment and the Global HER Act, which will permanently repeal the Global Gag Rule. Without both actions, access to care will always remain out of reach for millions of people, particularly in the Global South. To truly “build back better,” we must undo the legacy of these neocolonialist and racist policies and renew our role as human rights defenders.

Jan Schakowsky represents Illinois’ 9th District. In July 2020, Representative Schakowsky introduced the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act, the first-ever bill to repeal the Helms Amendment. Barbara Lee, who represents California’s 13th District; Jackie Speier, who represents California’s 14th District; and Ayanna Pressley, who represents Massachusetts’ 7th District, are all co-sponsors of the bill.

Tags Ayanna Pressley Barbara Lee Jackie Speier Jan Schakowsky

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