Ban the Abortion Ban
Issue 14, Volume 114
The Helms Amendment, often referred to as the “global gag rule,” was signed into law nearly 50 years ago to prohibit the use of U.S. foreign aid as a means to pay for abortion services. The United States Agency for International Development currently provides $49.26 billion to over 100 different countries, and this amendment prevents a single cent of that money from being spent on abortion services. Even more insidious is the fact that the amendment is enforced in such a way that many countries receiving foreign aid from America are prohibited from using their own federal funds (unrelated to foreign aid) to support abortion services, even if abortion was originally legal in the recipient country. The amendment has been enforced even in the most extreme circumstances, such as in cases where pregnancy bears a life-threatening risk. Of the 48 countries receiving foreign aid from U.S. health programs, only 14 allow abortion if these extreme circumstances are at play.
The conditional attachment of foreign aid makes it so that countries in need of U.S. assistance must forgo their access to abortion, and vice versa. This is problematic in many instances, especially when countries are in dire need of health aid. The largest health initiative ever undertaken by a single country is the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). PEPFAR has funded treatment for HIV, malaria, and tuberculosis, saving over 17 million lives in Africa since its launch in 2003, and is still regarded today as one of America’s most auspicious efforts abroad. However, the Helms Amendment applies to PEPFAR programs as well. Of the 56 countries receiving aid from PEPFAR and related health programs, eight countries have had to completely outlaw abortion as a result of the Helms Amendment. Such stipulations mean that American foreign aid creates conditions in recipient countries that decrease accessibility to goods and healthcare. If a country were to attempt to increase abortion access, its PEPFAR aid would no doubt be cut off.
The Helms Amendment has had a tumultuous legislative history: after originally being signed by former President Richard Nixon, it was rescinded in 2009 by former President Barack Obama, reintroduced in 2017 under the jurisdiction of former President Donald Trump, and most recently rescinded once again by current President Joe Biden. A more permanent solution is needed to ban the global gag rule from legislation everywhere. Senator Cory Booker introduced the Abortion Is Health Care Everywhere Act to the Senate floor on July 29, 2020, which would comprehensively revoke the Helms Amendment. In just two months, it secured over 110 cosponsors in Congress. The act was endorsed by advocates for abortion rights, such as the Center for Reproductive Rights and Planned Parenthood Federation of America. After a difficult time making headway in legislative debate, the bill was reintroduced by Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky on March 9, 2021, in commemoration of International Women’s Day. The act changes the wording of the amendment and reverses its message: U.S. funding shall be used to provide comprehensive reproductive healthcare services and information, including abortion services, training, and equipment. This simple change in wording could save the lives of many: studies have found that repealing the Helms Amendment comprehensively would lead to roughly 19 million fewer unsafe abortions and 17,000 fewer maternal deaths each year. In times when abortion access within the United States itself is a highly divisive issue, there is no doubt that this bill and others that promote abortion access will have a difficult time being codified into law. However, it is high time that the United States stopped infringing on the rights of vulnerable women abroad once and for all.