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Time Is Up for the Helms Amendment

Policy Briefs

Policy Recommendations

  • Cosponsor the Abortion Is Health Care Everywhere Act to repeal the Helms amendment.
  • Support the removal of the Helms amendment from the annual Department of State and Foreign Operations appropriations bill.
  • The president should instruct the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to allow funds to be provided for abortion services, where permitted, in cases of rape, incest or life endangerment in countries receiving U.S. foreign assistance.

The Helms Amendment Hurts

Abortion is a safe medical procedure when carried out following medical guidance. However, for many women living in low- and middle-income countries, access to safe abortion and other reproductive health services is often limited. Each year, 35 million women around the world undergo an unsafe abortion. Procedures performed by those lacking sufficient skills, in environments that don’t meet minimum medical standards or are using methods that are outdated or dangerous — such as the ingestion of caustic substances or insertion of foreign objects — can lead to severe complications, including hemorrhage, infection and even death. As a result, unsafe abortions are a leading cause of maternal morbidity and mortality.

The Helms amendment prevents the United States from adequately addressing this issue and arguably exacerbates it by creating and reinforcing barriers to safe abortion access. The United States is one of the world’s largest providers of global health assistance, including reproductive health. In communities that rely heavily on this assistance, the U.S. prohibition on using its funds to provide the full range of comprehensive quality reproductive health services means that safe abortion care may be out of reach or simply nonexistent for many. The policy has restricted access for health care providers to necessary equipment and drugs, and — despite clarifications to the policy to allow for the provision of information regarding abortion or referrals — confusion and an overabundance of caution have led to unnecessary censorship.

Although legal abortion is still restricted in many countries creating a significant barrier to care, campaigns to advance reproductive rights and initiatives to reduce maternal mortality have led to many countries liberalizing their abortion laws in recent decades. Yet, the Helms amendment bans U.S. funds from being used for a medical procedure that is both legal in the United States and under some or all circumstances in many of the nearly 40 countries where USAID operates family planning and reproductive health programs.

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