Congress could prevent 19 million unsafe abortions around the world every year if it rescinded the Helms Amendment, a 1973 law that prevents American foreign aid from being used to pay for abortions, according to a new report.
The report, published by pro-abortion rights research organization the Guttmacher Institute, analyzed the impact a repeal would have on unsafe abortions, maternal death and pregnancy-related complications for women internationally. The report found that the overall number of maternal deaths due to unsafe abortions would decline by 98% in the 33 countries that the Helms Amendment effects. Guttmacher also found that there would be 17,000 fewer maternal deaths every year, and 12 million fewer women would have abortion-related complications that require medical treatment.
The Helms Amendment, first enacted into law the same year abortion was legalized in the U.S., impacts women and families in countries where the U.S. is already supporting family planning programs including Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda. Many advocate groups have accused the amendment of being racist because it largely affects developing countries in Africa. Unlike the Hyde Amendment, Helms’ domestic equivalent, the Helms Amendment has been over-interpreted over the years as making no exception for rape, incest or if the mother’s life is at risk.
President Joe Biden, who vowed to pursue an aggressive plan to further reproductive justice in the U.S. and around the world, is under pressure from abortion rights groups to work with Congress to repeal the Helms Amendment.
By repealing the amendment and allowing for safe, regulated abortion procedures, health systems in each country would also benefit financially, Guttmacher found. The cost of providing safe abortion services would only increase by 19%, while costs for post-care for unsafe abortions would decrease by 89%. Overall, health systems in these 33 countries would save $641 million.
The Helms Amendment goes hand-in-hand with the Global Gag Rule, also known as the Mexico City Policy, which was enacted in 1984 by President Ronald Reagan. The gag rule piggybacks on the Helms Amendment, barring the federal government from offering U.S. aid to any foreign health organization that also offers or provides information on abortion services. The difference here is that the Helms Amendment bans U.S funding for abortion procedures, while the gag rule bans any U.S. funding to any foreign non-governmental organizations that offer or even educate patients on abortion services with their own non-US money.
Ever since the gag rule was enacted, each Democratic president has revoked it, and each Republican president has put it back in place. Under the Trump administration, the gag rule was expanded multiple times. President Joe Biden recently rescinded the rule after he took office last month.
“The global gag rule and the Helms Amendment have spread like a cancer through U.S. foreign assistance,” Zara Ahmed, associate director of federal issues at Guttmacher, said in a statement. “Now is the time for the White House and Congress to root out these twin malignant policies, not just from family planning and reproductive health funding, but from all U.S. global health initiatives.”
Many abortion-rights advocates, including the Guttmacher Institute, are pushing the Biden administration to do more than simply rescind the gag rule. For starters, many organizations are calling for Biden to pass the Global Health, Empowerment and Rights (Global HER) Act, which would permanently repeal the global gag rule. Next, they’re urging the Biden administration to repeal the Helms Amendment and its domestic equivalent, the Hyde Amendment.
“While it is critical that President Biden rescinded the global gag rule last month, that was just a first step,” said Ahmed. “In order to truly support global progress, the White House and Congress must work together to permanently repeal the global gag rule through legislation, as well as repeal the Helms Amendment.”
Some lawmakers are already looking for ways to rescind the Helms Amendment permanently. Last year, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) introduced the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act, which aims to remove the Helms Amendment from statute and replace it with a commitment to provide comprehensive reproductive health care information and services, including abortion care.
“The Helms Amendment is a policy deeply rooted in racism. It imposes our arbitrary and medically unnecessary abortion restrictions on international communities, allowing the United States to control the health care and bodily autonomy of billions of Black and brown people around the world,” Schakowsky said in July. “Just like the Hyde Amendment, the Helms Amendment puts reproductive and economic freedom out of reach for women of color. But enough is enough, and both amendments must fall if we want to realize true health equity and reproductive justice.”