Youth advocates tell Congress: Helms hurts

Friday, March 6, 2015

Ipas Advisor Selorme Azumah: "The role of U.S. foreign policy in Africa is huge and can be very damaging when it is pregnant with restrictions."

Youth advocates from Ghana, Pakistan and the United States spoke at a briefing at the U.S. House of Representatives this week to call on the U.S. government to support programs and policies that expand young people’s access to comprehensive reproductive health care and information, including safe abortion and contraception. Specifically, panelists called on the U.S. government to lift two abortion-related restrictions in U.S. foreign policy — the Helms Amendment and the Global Gag Rule — and to fully fund international family planning and reproductive health programs. 

In her introduction, Ipas Director of Community Access Leila Hessini noted that young people are particularly vulnerable to unwanted pregnancy and unsafe abortion. “More than half of young married and unmarried women ages 15-19 who are sexually active and want to avoid pregnancy have an unmet need for modern contraception, the highest level of unmet need among any age group.”

Selorme Azumah, Ipas program advisor and panelist from Ghana, described how this reality played out for young people in Ghana, where young people already face significant barriers to reproductive health care, including contraception and safe abortion care. Although abortion is broadly legal in Ghana, he said, the Helms amendment discourages policymakers from taking essential steps to ensure access to comprehensive reproductive health services. “The role of U.S. foreign policy in Africa is huge and can be very damaging when it is pregnant with restrictions.”

Urooj Arshad of Pakistan, with Advocates for Youth, described how the Helms Amendment undermined efforts by youth advocates and family planning organizations to ensure that young women have access to comprehensive reproductive health services and information. “Young women are most vulnerable to negative outcomes from confusion around an overly broad interpretation of the Helms amendment as well as the (currently rescinded) global gag rule,” she said. “Permanent repeal of the Helms Amendment and Global Gag Rule are critical to fostering rather than suppressing an enabling environment for young women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights around the world.”

The briefing was sponsored by a number of leading advocates for reproductive rights in the U.S. Congress, Reps. Barbara Lee (D-CA), Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) and Elizabeth Esty (D-CT). Reps. Esty and Schultz both made remarks at the briefing.

Esty commended the advocates on the panel for speaking out, recalling how seeing high school classmates drop out because they got pregnant drove her to volunteer for Planned Parenthood in college: “Women everywhere in the world must have the opportunity to determine their futures, care for their families and manage their fertility.” She continued, “As a member of Congress, this is a core issue for me, to protect the safety and health of women around the world.”

Allison Pfotzer, a youth advocate at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., noted that young people around the world are routinely prevented from receiving accurate health information and care: “From the young women I worked with in Kenya, to the young teenage girls I worked with in the mountains of North Carolina, who did not understand that they have a choice and power of consent in a relationship, to the college students I have met who still feel stigma around being sexually active, and often don’t take the necessary precautions to be safe and responsible for themselves out of fear of judgment from their peers or others… these are all young women suffering because we have restricted rights and live in a culture of shame and stigma around women’s sexuality. We aren’t getting what we need.”

“This isn’t a partisan issue,” Pfotzer noted. “This is a human rights issue.”