Friday, September 25, 2020 | News

U.S. Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky: ‘It’s past time for the Helms Amendment to fall’

In recognition of International Safe Abortion Day, Ipas reached out to Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) to talk about H.R. 7816, the Abortion Is Health Care Everywhere Act. It is the first-ever bill to repeal the Helms Amendment. Schakowsky is the lead sponsor of the bill, which would replace the Helms Amendment with a policy expanding access to abortion care worldwide. It has gained more than 100 cosponsors.

U.S. Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky

“Now, more than ever, in memory of our champion Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, we must stand up for reproductive health care as a human right in the United States and around the world,” Schakowsky says. “I’m hopeful that over the next year, this bill will garner even more support and that we will sign it into law alongside other critical legislation to ensure coverage of abortion for every woman in the United States and to prevent states from enacting medically-unnecessary restrictions on access to abortion.” 

Why is the Helms amendment so harmful to people around the world, especially Black and brown people in the Global South?

Since 1973, the Helms Amendment has prohibited any U.S. foreign aid from being used for “the performance of abortion as a method of family planning.” But in practice, Helms has banned all U.S. foreign assistance funds from being used for any abortion care. As the largest government funder of global health, including family planning and reproductive health services, the United States should be stepping up and doing everything we can to prevent negative maternal health outcomes. But instead we have archaic language that creates an arbitrary line between abortion and all other health care services, limiting access to critical care in the Global South.

The Helms Amendment reduces the availability of safe, legal abortion; denies health-care providers life-saving equipment and training; and has resulted in unscientific censoring of critical reproductive health information. My Abortion Is Health Care Everywhere Act, H.R. 7816, would repeal the Helms Amendment and allow us to use U.S. foreign assistance to provide access to high-quality, comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care services for all people, including safe, legal and accessible abortion.

What motivated you to introduce this legislation at this time?

I’ve been in Congress since 1999, and frankly I’m embarrassed that it’s taken us this long! The Helms Amendment was enacted 47 years ago to prevent billions of people around the world from being able to exercise their reproductive rights, depriving them of the health care they want and need. Annually, there are more than 35 million unsafe abortions worldwide that lead to millions of injuries and tens of thousands of preventable maternal deaths; the Helms Amendment exacerbates this crisis, and enough is enough. If we repeal the Helms Amendment and invest in reproductive health care around the world, Guttmacher estimates we can reduce unsafe abortions by 72 percent, unintended pregnancy by 68 percent, and maternal deaths by 62 percent. It’s past time for the Helms Amendment to fall in order for us to realize any vision of health equity and reproductive justice. 

How does the Abortion Is Health Care Everywhere Act fit into your commitment to reproductive justice, economic freedom and human rights for all?

The Helms Amendment allows the United States to control the health care and bodily autonomy of Black and brown people around the world, putting reproductive and economic freedom out of reach for women of color in order to advance a conservative political agenda. Its author, former U.S. Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, made no secret of his racist views.  If we are serious about racial justice and expanding abortion access for everyone, then we must repeal the Helms Amendment. This racist policy has been the status quo for far too long.