On this day 42 years ago the United States Supreme Court announced its landmark decision in the Roe v. Wade case, confirming the right of women in the United States to have an abortion. Despite this affirmation from the highest court in the land, the debate over a woman’s right to choose continues in the U.S.
Symbolically, GOP leadership in the House of Representatives intended today to vote on a bill, H.R. 36, which would have banned abortions after 20-weeks of pregnancy. However, concerned that they would not have the votes necessary to pass the bill, Republicans made a last minute switch. They put up a different bill, H.R. 7, which would make permanent longstanding prohibitions on federal funding for abortion in the U.S., among other additional restrictions. The bill adds to the growing list of anti-women’s health bills the new Republican-controlled Congress has introduced within their first weeks of being in session.
Attacks like this on abortion, although seemingly ever-present these days, are nothing new. The backlash to the Roe decision in 1973 started almost immediately, as anti-choice members of Congress went on the offensive. They challenged the ruling by introducing bills and amendments intended to curtail access to and funding for abortion services not only for American women, but for women around the world.
In December of that year, anti-choice law makers secured a devastating win with the passage of the Helms Amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, which bans the use of U.S. foreign aid funds for abortion as a “method of family planning.” Since then, the amendment has been implemented as a near-total ban on funding for abortion without exception—even in cases when a women’s life is in danger, or when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.
The Helms amendment limits the ability of women overseas to exercise their reproductive rights. It has also prevented the U.S. from being able to adequately address issues of unsafe abortion, which remains common in many developing countries. The 22,000 deaths and countless injuries suffered annually from unsafe abortions remain a major contributor to high rates of maternal mortality and morbidity globally. Quite simply, the Helms amendment is bad policy and should be repealed.
Unfortunately, the new Republican majority in Congress has made their position and priorities clear. As today’s vote shows, they fully intend to try and chip away at women’s access to safe abortion care. This is why domestic and international reproductive rights advocates alike are looking to the Obama administration to stand up and hold firm on women’s rights domestically and abroad.
Today, President Obama announced his intention to veto H.R. 7, should it make it to his desk. This strong statement of support for the rights of American women is greatly appreciated. However, he has yet to take action to lessen the harm to women overseas caused by the Helms Amendment, despite ongoing calls to do so from advocates around the world and more than 80 health and human rights organizations.
Although the president cannot repeal the Helms Amendment without Congress, he can and should correct the interpretation of the policy and allow U.S. foreign assistance to be used for abortion in the extremely narrow cases where a pregnancy endangers a women’s life, or is the result of rape or incest.
President Obama, Helms hurts and the time for action is now!