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Reproductive justice activists rally for safe abortion access

Reproductive justice activists rally for safe abortion access in this file photo. "It's time to rescind this dangerous policy—for good," Rep. Jan Schakowsky said of the Helms Amendment this week. (Photo: Tami Chappell/AFP/Getty Images)

Lawmakers Introduce Bill to Get Rid of Helms Amendment—'A Racist, Colonial Relic'

One analysis estimates the repeal would result in 19 million fewer unsafe abortions each year.

Andrea Germanos

A group of pro-choice congresswomen launched a fresh bid this week to get rid of a policy that blocks U.S. foreign assistance funds from going to abortion care services and that its critics call a "stark example of neocolonialism."

Led by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), the group of lawmakers reintroduced on Tuesday the Abortion Is Health Care Everywhere Act, which would repeal the Helms Amendment.

That amendment, authored by the late racist Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, was enacted in 1973 and blocks U.S. foreign assistance funds from being used for abortion services.

Alexis McGill Johnson, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement Tuesday that the amendment "has always been a coercive policy, pushing the extreme ideology of a vocal minority in the U.S. on people in many of the lowest-income countries in the world—people in need of healthcare."

"The policy is a stark example of neocolonialism," she said, "taking advantage of the uneven relationship between the U.S. and the countries that receive aid."

Getting rid of it, an analysis from the Guttmacher Institute shows, would bring clear benefits "in the countries where abortion is legal on at least some grounds and where the United States is already supporting family planning programs":

  • There would be 19 million fewer unsafe abortions each year.
  • There would be 17,000 fewer maternal deaths each year.
  • The overall number of maternal deaths due to abortion in these countries would decline by 98%.
  • There would be 12 million fewer women each year who have abortion-related complications requiring medical treatment.

Beyond those health benefits, the research and policy organization says there would be "positive financial implications for the health systems in the 33 countries that would initially benefit from U.S. aid to ensure full access to safe abortions," including an 89% reduction in the cost of providing post-abortion care.

The proposed Abortion Is Health Care Everywhere Act (pdf), according to the website, would amend the Foreign Assistance Act to take out the Helms statute and replace it with "proactive language stating that U.S. funding shall be used to provide comprehensive reproductive healthcare services and information, including abortion services, training, and equipment."  

Co-lead sponsors of the legislation are Democratic Reps. Barbara Lee (Calif.), Jackie Speier (Calif.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), Diana DeGette (Colo.), Norma Torres (Calif.), and Marilyn Strickland (Wash.). It has over 140 co-sponsors.

In an op-ed published Tuesday at The Hill, Schakowsky, Strickland, and DeGette say the harms from the Helms Amendment are as great as those of the so-called Global Gag Rule, which President Joe Biden already rescinded. "Abortion is healthcare," the trio wrote, "and the Helms Amendment has got to go." They added:

Repealing the Helms Amendment means supporting nations that want better health outcomes and allowing individuals to have control over their sexual and reproductive health. Everyone — including people living in low-to-middle income countries — deserves the safety and dignity of basic healthcare, including comprehensive reproductive healthcare. That means more access to preventative screenings like Pap smears, testing and care for sexually transmitted infections and HIV/AIDS, and safe abortion and contraception, all with self-determination and respect.

The lawmakers went on to frame the Helms Amendment as "nothing more than an attempt to control Black and brown people all over the world by making it impossible for millions to access abortion."

Planned Parenthood Global highlighted the human impact of the decades-long amendment.s

"Through our work with local partners across Africa and Latin America, we see the devastating effects of Helms—including contributing to unsafe abortion and maternal deaths," the group tweeted. "For example, a quarter of a million women die every year because of unsafe abortion in Kenya."

In light of such impacts, the International Women's Health Coalition (IWHC) welcomed the introduction of the new legislation.

"For more than 47 years the Helms Amendment, a racist and colonial relic, has denied pregnant people abroad their right to make decisions about their own health and lives. It has intentionally and unfairly limited access to safe and legal abortion services, costing some their lives," said Shannon Kowalski, director of advocacy and policy at IWHC, in a statement Tuesday.

"It's time for people worldwide to be able to access comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services without interference from the U.S. government," Kowalski continued. "The Abortion Is Health Care Everywhere Act is an important and long-overdue step forward that will further U.S. leadership on global health and human rights and will have a significant impact on the lives of women and girls worldwide."

Progressive advocacy group UltraViolet and reproductive rights group CHANGE urged Congress and Biden to support the bill, using a mobile billboard Tuesdat that went around the U.S. Capitol with messages such as: "President Biden and Congress: Support Pregnant People Around the Globe by Protecting Our Health and Rights."

"As the world works to rebuild from the devastation of this pandemic, an economic crisis, and centuries of systemic racism, we must continue to cement these rights and dismantle the policies implemented by men like [former President] Donald Trump to deny the world’s most vulnerable communities the right to abortion and other critical forms of reproductive healthcare in the U.S. and abroad," said UltraViolet campaign director Sonja Spoo.

"The administration must move with the urgency this moment requires to ensure access to abortion and reproductive healthcare for all against mounting threats both in the U.S. and abroad. Critically," Spoo continued, "we need President Biden to make good on his campaign promise and take a strong stance against the Helms Amendment and for Congress to work to pass the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act."

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