Wednesday, July 29, 2020 | News

History in the making: A call to repeal the Helms Amendment

The Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act, introduced in the U.S. Congress today by Democratic Representative Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, would repeal the Helms Amendment—a racist policy that for nearly 50 years has denied access to abortion services to Black and brown women living in low- and middle-income countries.

The Helms Amendment states that U.S. foreign assistance funds cannot be used for “the performance of abortion as a method of family planning.” It effectively reduces the availability of safe, legal abortion, denies health-care providers life-saving equipment and training and censors critical health information—putting essential health-care services out of reach for millions of people globally.

While there have been attempts to reinterpret the Helms Amendment during its 47-year history, the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act is the bill that would repeal it outright.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted how harmful U.S. policies like the Helms Amendment only serve to accentuate health inequities and deny marginalized people—including women of color and young people—access to essential health-care services.

“The Amendment is rooted in racism and neo-colonialism and enables the U.S. government to control the health-care access and bodily autonomy of Black and brown people around the world,” says Anu Kumar, Ipas president and CEO.  “It denies people access to essential health-care services, including abortion. And with the current worldwide lockdowns and health systems focusing on managing COVID-19, contraception and abortion are becoming harder to access, particularly for individuals who already face poor reproductive health outcomes.”

Every year, more than 35 million women and girls around the world have abortions in unsafe conditions, and many suffer injuries and disabilities as a result. It is expected that during the COVID-19 pandemic there will be an increase in unplanned pregnancies and unsafe abortion because of disruptions in contraceptive supply chains and higher rates of sexual violence. Some figures point to a potential 15 million more unintended pregnancies and three million more unsafe abortions around the world. 

The Helms Amendment exacerbates the situation.

In Kenya, restricting funds for abortion has been harmful to peoples’ health and autonomy, says Dr. Ernest Nyamato, Ipas associate director for quality of care, based in Nairobi.  

“As a health-care provider, I know that abortion care is an essential health-care service,” Nyamato says. “I have seen firsthand how women risk their lives by attempting to end an unplanned pregnancy by unsafe means. U.S. policies should not be a barrier to women’s reproductive health.”

The call to repeal the Helms Amendment through the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act is led by Schakowsky and original cosponsors: Representatives Nita Lowey, Diana DeGette, Jackie Speier, Barbara Lee, Norma Torres and Ayanna Pressley.

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