Rep. Jan Schakowsky, Abortion Rights Groups Announce First-Ever Bill to Repeal 47-Year-old Anti-Abortion Policy

Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act would repeal the Helms Amendment, which bars U.S. foreign assistance funding for abortion, expanding abortion access globally

WASHINGTON -- Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), a Senior Chief Deputy Whip and Chair of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus Providers and Clinics Task Force, today introduced the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act. The Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act is the first-ever legislation to repeal the Helms Amendment,a 47-year-old policy rooted in racism that bans the use of any U.S. foreign assistance funds for abortion, putting an arbitrary line between abortion and all other global health services. Reps. Nita Lowey (D-NY), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Jackie Speier (D-CA), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Diana DeGette (D- CO), and Norma Torres (D-CA) signed on as original co-sponsors.

Rep. Schakowsky announced the new legislationon a virtual press conference with reporters on Wednesday morning, discussing the Helms Amendment’s harmful history, its burden on global reproductive and economic freedom, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on access to reproductive health care around the world. Joining her on the call were Dr. Ernest Nyamato, a Kenyan doctor and Quality of Care global team lead at Ipas, an international reproductive health and human rights organization, and former director of the Ipas Africa Alliance in Kenya; and Lienna Feleke-Eshete, public policy associate at CHANGE, a U.S. nongovernmental organization that advocates for sexual and reproductive health and rights for women and girls and others who face stigma and discrimination.

As the United States grapples with racism and barriers to racial justice, the Helms Amendment is yet another example of a systemic policy that has become commonplace in society.

“The Helms Amendment is a policy deeply rooted in racism. It imposes our arbitrary and medically unnecessary abortion restrictions on international communities, allowing the United States to control the health care and bodily autonomy of billions Black and brown people around the world. Just like the Hyde Amendment, the Helms Amendment puts reproductive and economic freedom out of reach for women of color. But enough is enough, and both amendments must fall if we want to realize true health equity and reproductive justice,” said Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky. “I am proud that my sisters, Representatives Lowey, Lee, Speier, Pressley, DeGette, and Torres, are joining me to introduce the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act of 2020, which will finally repeal the Helms Amendment.Comprehensive reproductive health care, including safe, legal, and accessible abortion, is a human right.”

Dr. Nyamato explained how the Helms Amendment puts reproductive and economic freedom out of reach for millions around the world, including in Kenya and other African nations. He also discussed the impact of the restrictions on Kenyans who may already have limited access to critical health care services, noting the disconnect between the Helms Amendment and the needs of communities receiving U.S. foreign aid.

“While U.S. foreign aid has been critical for communities across Kenya, restricting funds for abortion has been harmful to the health and autonomy of people across the country. Because of these restrictions, too often, an unsafe abortion from someone without training becomes the only option,” said Dr. Ernest Nyamato, a Kenyan doctor and Ipas quality of care lead. “As someone who has worked in multiple roles in health and human rights, I see just how critical comprehensive health care, including abortion is, for people, their families, and their communities. Unfortunately, we are already seeing health inequities grow due to COVID-19 and people using the crisis to try to eliminate abortion access. Global support must help prioritize health care, not perpetuate barriers that make it harder for people to get the health care they need.”

Health systems worldwide are already overwhelmed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to a reduction in access to sexual and reproductive health care in many countries, despite the fact that abortion care is time sensitive. The Helms Amendment is poised to further exacerbate these disparities and put critical health care out of reach for millions across the globe.

“Having lived through other health crises, I know that women and girls often suffer disproportionately. COVID-19 has devastated many of the communities where I work, and now is not the time to further limit people’s options,” said Monica Oguttu, an international women’s rights advocate, Kenyan midwife with decades of experience, founder of Kisumu Medical and Education Trust in Kenya, and an Ipas board member. “My patients can’t afford more red tape right now, and I ask that the U.S. government help, not harm Kenyan people.”

Enacted in 1973, the Helms Amendment is housed in the Foreign Assistance Act and has been passed as part of Congressional appropriations bills every year for nearly five decades. The legislation was introduced by then Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC), who was known for his anti-rights, racist efforts throughout his career. The amendment is related to, but distinct from, the global gag rule (also known as the ‘Mexico City policy’), an executive order that prohibits foreign organizations that receive U.S. global health assistance from using non-U.S. funding to provide abortion services, information, counseling or referrals and from engaging in advocacy to expand abortion access. Both policies are discriminatory and deeply unjust.

While this is the first introduction of a repeal bill, a broad coalition of global reproductive health and rights advocacy, research, and service delivery organizations has been working to mitigate and address the harms caused by Helms for years. Coalition members include Advocates for Youth, American Jewish World Service, Catholics for Choice, Center for Reproductive Rights, CHANGE (Center for Health and Gender Equity), Guttmacher, International Center for Research on Women, Ipas, International Women’s

Health Coalition, NARAL Pro-Choice America, Open Society Policy Center, PAI, Population Connection Action Fund, Population Institute, and Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Additionally, the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act is endorsed by more than 115 organizations and quotes from several groups can be found below for inclusion in media coverage. More information can be found at repealhelms.org.

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Quotes from Coalition Partners and Endorsing Organizations

Anu Kumar, president and CEO, Ipas

Abortion is essential health care —including during a pandemic. Abortion is a time-sensitive health-care service that cannot be deferred without profound consequences for pregnant people and their families. With worldwide lockdowns, and health systems focused on managing Covid-19, contraception and abortion are becoming harder to access, particularly for individuals who already face poor reproductive health outcomes. The pandemic has laid bare deep inequalities, including in access to safe abortion care, and we must address these inequalities now and in a post-pandemic future. The Helms amendment has politicized abortion services since it was enacted nearly 50 years ago—the policy strips abortion away from basic reproductive health care and it is Black and brown women who bear the burden of this discriminatory and deeply unjust, racist policy abroad. U.S. policies like this are harmful to people all over the world, particularly those living in low-to-middle income countries. The Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act is a tremendous step in moving us all to the day when everyone, no matter where they live or how much money they make, can get the health care they need, including an abortion if they need one with dignity. We are thrilled to join Rep. Jan Schakowsky and the original cosponsors, Reps. Nita Lowey, Barbara Lee, Jackie Speier, Ayanna Pressley, Diana DeGette and Norma Torres, in pushing to end a U.S. policy that is rooted in racism and colonialism—it’s past time.

Serra Sippel, president, CHANGE (the Center for Health and Gender Equity)

It is unconscionable that the United States has accepted the Helms Amendment as status quo for more than 45 years. Today is a historic day because U.S. advocates and lawmakers for the first time are standing together to end this racist and neocolonial policy and ensure the U.S. government no longer turns its back on the health and human rights of people across the globe. As countries have lifted their own restrictions on abortion and prioritized the health and rights of women and girls, the Helms Amendment has dragged their progress backwards. The United States must stop dictating to other countries that they deny women, girls, families, and LGBTQIA+ communities access to life-saving health care. Congress must work to pass the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act and repeal the Helms amendment now.

Nicole Cheetham, international youth health and rights director, Advocates for Youth

Around the world, young people in need of abortion services face many challenges to accessing care, including legal barriers, lack of access to affordable services, long travel distances, and stigma. The Helms Amendment and its interpretation exacerbate these challenges by forbidding the use of foreign assistance funds for abortion, even in countries where legal. Such restrictions to services are harmful and put young people at risk because they may not be able to access the services that they need. The

Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act is a crucial step toward ensuring that young people have access to comprehensive reproductive health care services, including the provision of abortion services.

Abortion access is fundamental to ensuring young people's autonomy, health, and ability to plan for their future. U.S. foreign assistance should contribute to improving the sexual and reproductive health of young people and reducing maternal mortality and morbidity, not create added barriers that harm their health and well-being.

Rori Kramer, director of U.S. advocacy, American Jewish World Service

The Helms Amendment has long prevented individuals from getting the health care that they want and need. This legislation makes it clear that abortion is not only health care, but a human right. We are proud to stand alongside Reps. Schakowsky, Lowey, Lee, Speier, Pressley, DeGette, and Torres in the fight to put abortion access within reach for everyone, including the most vulnerable around the world.

Sara Hutchinson Ratcliffe, acting president, Catholics for Choice

Catholics for Choice is proud to stand with moral leaders like Rep. Jan Schakowsky to right the wrong of the Helms Amendment, an affront to our values as Americans and as Catholics—freedom of speech, freedom of religion and the Catholic call to care the marginalized of society. For more than four decades, the Helms Amendment has endangered the lives of the most vulnerable people in the world— depriving them of both moral autonomy and basic reproductive health care. It is unconscionable for this dangerous and unjust policy to continue. Congress should pass the Abortion is Healthcare Everywhere Act, now!

Dr. Herminia Palacio, president and CEO, Guttmacher Institute

The U.S. government can and must show global leadership in safeguarding reproductive health and rights. This is true especially with the COVID-19 crisis threatening the health of women and families across the world—including potentially a significant increase in unintended pregnancies and unsafe abortion. U.S. leadership includes repealing the harmful Helms amendment through the Abortion Is Health Care Everywhere Act. The Helms amendment is a deeply unjust and discriminatory policy that in effect prohibits the use of U.S. global health assistance to support for safe abortion services abroad. Like other abortion restrictions, this funding ban most harshly impacts people with the fewest resources, including those who have low incomes, are young, or live in rural areas. The evidence is clear and irrefutable: Abortion is an experience shared by millions of people worldwide, both in countries where abortion is highly restricted and where it is broadly legal. Our urgent call to action for policymakers is that they must recognize the basic human right of all people to decide freely whether and when to be pregnant.

Dr. Chimaraoke Izugbara, director of global health, youth and development, International Center for Research on Women (ICRW)

International Center for Research on Women applauds the introduction of the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act, which calls for the repeal of the Helms Amendment. For over four decades, the Helms Amendment has frustrated access to essential sexual and reproductive health services worldwide. Our research shows that people of all genders who have bodily autonomy are healthier, are more financially secure and are more empowered in their decision-making and participation in social and political life.

Particularly for women and girls, these benefits extend to healthier and economically secure families, communities, and societies. Abortion is an essential health care service and should be upheld as such, regardless of political climate, local or global crises, or funding challenges. Access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health and wellness services is a human right.

Ilyse Hogue, president, NARAL Pro-Choice America

For over 45 years, the Helms Amendment has blocked access to care for millions of women around the world. Every body should have access to safe, comprehensive reproductive health care, including abortion care. Women and families everywhere deserve to make their own personal decisions about pregnancy without interference from politicians in Washington, DC. The Helms Amendment targets marginalized communities who already face too many obstacles to accessing care and remains a barrier to achieving economic and racial justice, which are inextricably linked to reproductive justice. Medical care should be determined by science—not an ideological agenda. For too long, the Helms Amendment has pushed time-sensitive, essential care out of reach for women across the globe. We must reverse this discriminatory policy and pass the Abortion is Healthcare Everywhere Act which will repeal the Helms Amendment and expand access to care.

Elisha Dunn-Georgiou, interim co-CEO, PAI

For more than four decades, the Helms Amendment has perpetuated and exacerbated health inequities around the world and compromised the effectiveness of the U.S.’ global health investments. Along with the global gag rule, funding restrictions that impede access to essential health care—including abortion—and prevent individuals from exercising their rights have no place in U.S. foreign policy. The repeal of the Helms Amendment is long overdue and we thank our Congressional leaders for clearing a path toward safe, legal and accessible abortion everywhere.

Brian Dixon, senior vice president for media and government relations, Population Connection Action Fund

For nearly 50 years, the Helms Amendment has made life harder for hundreds of millions of people around the world. It’s bad health policy. It’s bad foreign policy. It’s a disgraceful relic of a right-wing agenda that is utterly divorced from the reality of the lives of the people it hurts, and it is long past time for its repeal. We’re proud to endorse this important bill and are excited to help it pass into law.

Alexis McGill Johnson, president and CEO, Planned Parenthood Federation of America

Abortion is essential health care—period. Politicians in the United States should not be able to deny anyone’s access to health services, here in the United States, or abroad. The Helms Amendment has always been a coercive policy, pushing the extreme ideology of a vocal minority in the United States on people in many of the lowest income countries in the world—people in need of health care. The policy is a stark example of neocolonialism, taking advantage of the uneven relationship between the United States and the countries that receive aid. Planned Parenthood thanks Rep. Schakowsky and her original cosponsors for being champions for sexual and reproductive health care. And we’re calling on others in Congress to support their efforts to repeal the Helms Amendment.

Shilpa Phadke, vice president of the Women’s Initiative at the Center for American Progress

We applaud the introduction of the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act and its goal to ensure women around the world can better access safe abortion. This bill’s historic introduction marks the beginning of a policy reversal that has been long overdue. For decades, women around the world, particularly in the Global South, have been denied access to the full range of reproductive health care as a result of the Helms Amendment, which has allowed politicians in the United States to place their

ideologies about abortion ahead of women’s autonomy. It is high time that we repeal and replace the Helms Amendment and protect women’s ability to make decisions that are best for them and their families. If we want to forge the best solutions for promoting health and well-being and expanding peace and security throughout the world, women must help shape our collective future – and that is only possible if we safeguard women’s autonomy and freedom.

Barbara Weinstein, director, Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism

Jewish tradition emphasizes the importance of kavod ha’briyot, or respect for individual dignity. The Helms Amendment violates this core value by limiting abortion access for the most vulnerable and perpetuating inequality in global health care. We are proud to endorse the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act, which would remove the Helms Amendment from statute and expand access to comprehensive reproductive health care worldwide.

Cristine Sardina, director, Desiree Alliance

As sex workers, accessing reproductive health without shame, stigma, or legal consequences, makes it harder to control and manage our health care choices. If we literally have to choose between our healthcare or losing our children because of economic and legal ramifications, we have to understand that the moral and carceral systems in which we are forced to abide by, is problematic at its very best.

Kenyora Parham, executive director, End Rape On Campus

End Rape On Campus is proud to endorse the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act because we believe that access to safe abortion is a fundamental human right for all individuals. Even more specifically, with respect to survivors of sexual violence, research shows that reproductive rights are intrinsically linked to intimate partner violence. We need to repeal this harmful policy that dismisses survivors' autonomy, high mortality rates, and instead uplift and empower survivors--regardless of how they identify across the gender spectrum and promote equality by also upholding their human right to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care access.

Grant Shubin, legal director, Global Justice Center

While less known than the Global Gag Rule, the Helms Amendment is the core of U.S. abortion restrictions abroad. It has been at the center of the United States’ denial of essential medical care for over 40 years. Its repeal is long overdue. Thanks to Helms and other U.S. abortion restrictions, the United States is in constant violation of international human rights laws protecting non-discriminatory medical care and freedom of speech and association. Helms must be abolished before it is allowed to inflict any more harm around the world.

Beverly Winikoff, president, Gynuity Health Projects

Access to essential medical care also means access to safe abortion. Repeal of the oppressive Helms Amendment is long overdue.

Paul Golin, executive director, Jews for a Secular Democracy

Judaism has never considered human life to begin at conception, and neither does science; anti-abortion laws inherently privilege one interpretation of one religion over all other religions and none, and that is by definition a breach of the American values enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Tara Romano, executive director, NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina

The Helms Amendment is nothing but an attempt by anti-abortion U.S politicians to cynically gain votes at the expense of the health and lives of women, especially women of color and Indigenous women, around the world. Organizations and advocates on the ground know what is needed for everyone in their communities to thrive, and receiving critical U.S aid should not be conditioned on accepting an anti-abortion ideology that is rooted in imperialist politics rather than medical science, health care, and gender equity. Sen. Jesse Helms' policies and positions often made it clear that he had no interest in supporting Black and Brown communities, women, and the LGBTQ community in North Carolina, and this global amendment that bears his name is an extension of that disregard. It needs to be repealed now.

Jody Rabhan, chief policy officer, National Council of Jewish Women

At the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), we know that abortion is safe, essential, time- sensitive health care and that health care is a basic human right. Our Jewish values teach us that every single person's health is unassailable and that all deserve fair treatment and access to the resources necessary to make their own decisions about abortion without political interference or economic coercion. The Helms Amendment has long turned this principle on its head, denying care to millions of individuals around the world and hindering the exercise of their fundamental reproductive rights by blocking use of US foreign assistance funds for abortion services. NCJW is proud to endorse the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act to repeal this dangerous policy and to support access to high-quality, comprehensive reproductive health care services worldwide.

Toni Van Pelt, president, NOW

NOW is proud to support the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act, which prioritizes the repeal of the Helms Amendment, an oppressive piece of legislation that denies women access to reproductive freedom. While it only bans the use of U.S. aid for abortion care as a method of family planning, every American president since its passing in 1973 has interpreted the ban to also prohibit aid for abortions in the case of rape, incest, and to save a woman’s life. Abortion care is health care and reproductive freedom should be available to ALL women – the United States must play its part in increasing access for women around the world.

Ben Jealous, president, People For the American Way

The United States provides health care aid in parts of the world where international assistance is critically needed. It is essential that this aid go to supporting the full spectrum of safe reproductive health care, including abortion care. For too long, the Helms Amendment has not only hampered our ability to support safe care, it has done harm by allowing unsafe practices to flourish. We fully support the Abortion Is Healthcare Everywhere Act because it appropriately puts gender equity, medical science, and human rights at the forefront of our foreign assistance priorities.

Dr. Kristyn Brandi, board chair, Physicians for Reproductive Health

As an ob/gyn who provides abortion care, I see every day how critical it is that people have access to safe, accessible abortion care where they live. While we continue to fight for equitable access to abortion care in the United States, Congress must pass the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act to extend the reality of access to safe comprehensive maternal and reproductive health care, including abortion care, around the world.

Renee Bracey Sherman, executive director, We Testify, an organization dedicated to the leadership and representation of people who have abortions

The Helms Amendment is an outdated, xenophobic and racist policy that forces people of other nations to abide by horrific American anti-abortion beliefs. The Helms Amendment is unjust and colonialist at its core. The We Testify abortion storytellers will not stay silent as our loved ones in other countries are barred from the freedoms we're afforded in the constitution. We've had abortions and we know the powerful impact safe access has had on our lives. It's time for the United States to end its imperialist reign on the world and repeal the Helms Amendment to ensure everyone has access to abortion care, no matter where they live.

Elicia Gonzales, executive director, Women’s Medical Fund

We at Women’s Medical Fund believe abortion must be accessible for anyone, for any reason, by any method, at any stage of pregnancy. We support all efforts that expand abortion access.

Recommendation for the FY 2021 State-Foreign Operations Bill: Deletion of the reiterations of the Helms Amendment

The following endorsing organizations respectfully request that the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs remove the harmful and redundant reiterations of the Helms Amendment in the FY 2021 appropriations bill. 

The Helms Amendment prohibits the use of U.S. foreign assistance funds for “the performance of abortion as a method of family planning.” This provision hurts millions of people around the world who live in areas that rely heavily on U.S. foreign assistance in order to fund health programs by restricting the ability of individuals to make their own personal medical decisions and access comprehensive reproductive health care. Furthermore, the Helms amendment has been over-implemented as a complete ban on U.S. funding for abortion, even in cases of rape, incest, or a life-endangering pregnancy. 

Download the Full Letter 

Read Akila Radhakrishnan's Speech at the Feminist Majority Foundation's 2018 National Young Feminist Leadership Conference

2018 National Young Feminist Leadership Conference
March 17, 2018 Washington, DC
Text of Prepared Remarks

"I think we all remember the image of Donald Trump, on his third day in office, surrounded by a group of white men, with Mike Pence looking anxiously over his shoulder, signing an executive order stripping women and girls around the world of their access to safe abortion services. And he didn’t just do it like Presidents before him—like Regan and George W. Bush—he did it bigly. 

Submission to the UN Human Rights Council for US UPR

GJC sends a mid-term report submission for the Universal Periodic Review of the United States of America. The report examines the restrictions that the US puts on foriegn aid regarding the provision of abortion services and the ways those restrictions violate international law.

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Denial of Abortion Services to Women Raped in War is Torture

Today, September 28th is the Global Day of Action for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion, an international day celebrated to draw attention to the fact that access to safe and legal abortion is a necessary social good and a human right.

Due to the Helms Amendment that was passed in 1973 as a reaction against Roe vs. Wade, the US currently restricts the provision of safe abortion services with its foreign assistance. These restrictions result in the systematic denial of abortions in the vast majority of humanitarian medical settings around the world.

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In today’s conflicts, sexual violence is used systematically by groups such as ISIS and Boko Haram to demoralize, terrorize, destroy, and even alter the ethnic compositions of entire communities. The US’ denial of safe abortion services to victims of these attacks results in extended and intensified physical and mental suffering.

Childbirth is fourteen times more likely to lead to death than a safe abortion, becoming pregnant from rape in the conditions of war further increases the risk of maternal mortality. Rape causes many physical injuries that increase the danger of pregnancy and childbirth. For many victims of war rape, abortion is a safer option than a dangerous pregnancy.

Furthermore, denial of abortion to a war rape victim compounds the severe mental pain and suffering they are experiencing. Research has shown that being forced to bear the child of a rapist “prolongs the perpetrator’s intrusion, often causing great anguish and shame to the victim.” 

Women seeking illegal abortion services also face the stress of having to seek unsafe treatment with “uncertain outcomes, no proper aftercare and the possibility of being imprisoned if found out.” Impregnated war rape victims are also up to six times more likely to be divorced than those who were not raped and often experience community rejection and physical violence.

Denial of abortion services for rape victims also deprives these women and girls of their decision-making power over their own bodies and can perpetuate victim’s feelings of loss of control, compounding their mental and emotional trauma, causing serious traumatic and stress and a risk of long-lasting psychological problems.

The Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment has found that “highly restrictive abortion laws that prohibit abortions even in cases of incest, rape or fetal impairment or to safeguard the health of the woman violate women’s rights to be free from torture and ill-treatment.” They also found that “[s]tates have an affirmative obligation to reform restrictive abortion legislation that perpetuates torture and ill-treatment by denying women safe access and care.”

It is time for the US and all states to stand up for the rights of women raped in war and not compound their suffering by denying them necessary medical care.

Today we ask you to #BustTheMyths surrounding abortion and fight #AbortionStigmaand the denial of abortion services to women raped in war!

You can read more about our campaign here.

Respect Rape Victims’ Right to Abortions in Syria

by Carolina van der Mensbrugghe

Since 2011, the Syrian civil war continues to inflict irreparable harm on its civilian population and has resulted in over one quarter million civilian deaths. A disturbing and specific factor of the Syrian conflict is the brutal and systematic use of rape and other forms of violence against women. Rape ­– whether perpetrated by ISIS militants, the Damascus regime, or other rebels, is a fate far worse than death for many Syrian women.

In Latakia, a woman reportedly committed suicide because was unable to abort an unwanted pregnancy. Another woman was thrown off a balcony by her own father after he found out she was pregnant as a result of gang rape. Countless other women provided testimony that speaks to the gravity of the violence inflicted on their bodies, be it as an act of genocide, seen with Yazidi women kidnapped by ISIS, or as a weapon of war to destroy and divide rebel communities in opposition of the Assad regime.

To quote writer and Syrian refugee, Samar Yazbek, “[women’s] bodies have become battlefields and torture chambers.”

The Syrian conflict is considered the “largest humanitarian crisis of our time,” according to USAID. A recent report from the Syrian Refugees Websitea project of the Migration Policy Centre at the European University Institute in Florence, indicates that there are about 11 million refugees and over 13.5 million civilians in need of humanitarian aid.Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), wants to direct more international aid towards assisting women and girls, who he describes as “the most vulnerable and the ones who suffer most.” Women and girls, he further notes, are facing a campaign of widespread rape combined with a woeful lack of reproductive health services.

An estimated 500,000 pregnant Syrian women remain in the war-torn country or are in nearby nations. More than ever, access to abortion services is a critical form of medical care for these wartime rape victims, as well as protected right under the Geneva Conventions. Yet safe abortion services remain woefully lacking. Post-abortion care (care that’s required when women have undergone unsafe abortion procedures), has been identified as one of the major challenges in refugee camps.

Misallocation of funds is partly to blame, which Osotimehin concedes is due to the prioritization of providing food, shelter, and water over “women’s issues.” The resulting gendered bias towards issue-areas renders the discussion of “the dignity, the welfare, and the security of women (…) something that doesn’t play out at all” in donor nations discussions according to Osotimehin. The resulting impact this bias has had on dictating how to address and allocate humanitarian aid is devastating.

Another reason that fewer rape victims are receiving the essential medical care they need is that nearly all the major humanitarian groups in Syria, including UNFPA, are subject to American anti-abortion restrictions on humanitarian aid. The United States, through USAID, continues to be the largest government donor to the Syria crisis, with contributions of nearly $5.6 billion, between 2011 and 2016, matching the next three largest donors’ funding combined. This US monopoly limits in large part the services humanitarian aid providers can make available and equipment they can buy with US funds,

This summer, the Democratic Party, in a historic first step, has included in its platform a vow to overturn all domestic laws that impede a woman’s access to abortion, including the Helms Amendment. The reversal of this ban would allow US foreign aid to be used for abortions and other reproductive medical care desperately needed by thousands of women in Syria and throughout the world.

This year is the 67th Anniversary of the Geneva Conventions. We must reflect as a nation on both the historical legacy, as well as the ongoing protections the treaties afford civilians in conflict. In its inception the Geneva Conventions sought to define the scope of international humanitarian law by regulating armed conflict in service of offering combatants and civilians unalienable protections.

Just as the Geneva Conventions, and their application, have expanded over time in recognition of the evolving nature of armed conflicts, so too must convention signatories commit to modifying domestic policies that obstruct adherence to the treaties’ binding obligations. Such obligations include providing the right to all necessary medical care, which includes access to abortion services for war rape victims.

It is President Obama’s last opportunity to seize this call to action and pass an Executive Order that lifts the Helms Amendment restrictions and recommits American policy to its humanitarian legal obligations. USAID has already recognized the gravity of the Syrian crisis, both in terms of policy commitment and total aid donations. Now, with the support of the new democratic platform, it must incorporate a gender-sensitive commitment to the women of the Syrian crisis in its aid packages, which must include abortion services as obligated by the Geneva Conventions.

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43 years later, “Senator No” still impacting the lives of women and girls around the world.

By Martin Fowler

By the time Republican Jesse Helms ended his 30-year Senate career in 2003, his opponents and allies had long-since named him “Senator No.” From deriding civil rights reformers as “moral degenerates,” (noting their opposition to “the purely scientific, statistical evidence of natural racial distinctions in group intellect,”) to fervently opposing AIDS research and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Helms did indeed oppose most progressive ideas. It was therefore no surprise that he found himself as one of the loudest voices of the anti-abortion backlash against the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v Wade ruling that recognized a woman’s constitutional right to abortion. 


Helms - a college dropout and television commentator who grew up poor in North Carolina – had just been elected to the Senate when the Supreme Court handed down its landmark Roe v Wade decision. A product of the 1960s feminist movement, Roe v Wade considered state-level abortion bans and restrictions. In their 7-2 ruling, the Supreme Court found that a Texas law criminalizing abortion violated a woman’s constitutional right to privacy – a decision since seen as a foundational victory for the US reproductive rights movement.   

This expansion of women’s rights angered conservative senators – and Jesse Helms especially so. The years he had spent denouncing American liberal ideas and programs on North Carolina television – once lambasting Social Security as “nothing more than doles and handouts,” - should have provided the public with a hint of what was to come.  Buoyed by the reignited anti-abortion movement, Helms wasted little time finding ways to challenge and oppose women’s advances in reproductive rights. 


He soon sponsored, and Congress passed, a bill named the Helms Amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act. The Amendment, seeking to limit US involvement in overseas abortions, prohibited US foreign assistance funding of programs engaged in the provision of abortions as a “method of family planning.” Even programs that merely sought to “motivate or coerce,” someone to perform such abortions were banned. Helms had thus scored one of his early Senate victories by limiting women’s access to abortions – medical interventions the effects of which, he opined in his 2005 memoirs, were “another kind of holocaust.”


Undoubtedly a defeat for the reproductive rights movement, few could foresee the Helms Amendment’s devastating effects. While the inclusion of “family planning,” suggested that abortions in other cases – rape or incest, for example – would be allowed, the amendment’s interpretation by the Bush Administration disregarded “family planning,” thereby instituting a total ban on all foreign aid funding of abortions, an interpretation the Obama Administration continues.


43 years after “Senator No,” passed the Helms Amendment, its effects are still being felt. Despite international law establishing non-discriminatory medical care as a right, the US still refuses to provide abortions to girls and women raped in war – who are considered individuals seeking abortions for other reasons than “family planning.” This means that the Yazidi women sexually enslaved by ISIS, for example, risk death or an uncertain future in the face of the US ban.


Recognizing that #HelmsHurts, the Global Justice Center recently launched a White House petition to change the Helms Amendment; we ask President Obama to take steps through executive action to allow for US funding of abortions for war rape victims. 


Say no to the #HelmsLegacy: sign and share the petitionand help women and girls around the world get access to the lifesaving medical care they deserve.

Thinking of Yazidi Women and Girls on the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict

On June 19, as the international community observes the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, rape remains a central reality of war for women and girls around the world.

War rape is both a historical and contemporary part of war: it is not simply a byproduct of fighting but often serves as a central military tactic. In Yugoslavia in the 1990s, “the systematic rape of women … [was] in some cases intended to transmit a new ethnic identity to the child.” Yugoslav women were “often […] interned until it was too late for them to undergo an abortion,” thereby ensuring the creation of a new ethnic reality.

Today, in ISIS controlled territories, ISIS leaders “elevate and celebrate each sexual assault as spiritually beneficial, even virtuous.” Multiple accounts by former ISIS captives detail month-long rapes, severe physical and mental trauma, and forced pregnancies.

War rape thus serves to traumatize and create fear in the short term and to extend genocidal effects by producing new ethnic identities in the long term.

Yet despite the horrific psychological and biological results of war rape the United States’ Helms Amendment precludes any US humanitarian aid from being used for abortion services.

Denying abortions to war rape victims endangers innocent women’s lives, helps to perpetuate genocide and its effects, and violates the Geneva Conventions.

Even though the Hyde Amendment, a similar domestic amendment to the Helms Amendment, includes exceptions for rape and cases in which the mother’s health is in danger, foreign victims of war rape are not afforded these rights.

In 2015, Obama noted that the “Golden Rule,” that “seems to bind people of all faiths,” is to “treat one another as we wish to be treated,” — to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” If victims of war rape are to receive the medical care they deserve, the Obama Administration must apply this Golden Rule not only to domestic victims of rape, but to war rape victims in other countries as well.This involves recognizing their rights to non-discriminatory medical treatment and issuing an executive order that limits the scope of the Helms Amendment.

On Anniversary of Roe v. Wade, US Can’t Forget Women Overseas

Forty-three years ago today, the Supreme Court deemed abortion a constitutionally protected right for women in the United States in Roe v. Wade, taking a huge step forward for women’s equality. Since then, anti-choice lawmakers at the federal and state-level have been working concertedly to render this right meaningless by restricting access to abortion.

The Guttmacher Institute recently found that states have enacted 1,074 abortion restrictions since 1973.  One of the longest-standing restrictions is the Helms Amendments, which has been in place since December 1973 and prevents the use of U.S. foreign aid to pay for abortion services, even in the case of rape, incest or life endangerment.  

Shutting down federal funding for abortion services exacerbates one of the longest-standing barriers to abortion access: the cost. As anti-choice lawmakers have known for the past four decades, if the right to abortion can’t be eliminated, the next best thing is to make abortion access practically impossible.

The Helms Amendment impacts some of the most vulnerable women and girls in the world; those raped in war. Through the continued imposition of the Helms Amendment without exceptions, the U.S. is denying abortion access to women enslaved and raped by groups like ISIS and Boko Haram, and to girls as young as 12 raped in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The U.S. is laudably the world’s largest provider of development and humanitarian aid. Through this aid, the U.S. funds a variety of initiatives around the world, including health care services in conflict zones. But when girls and women present at these U.S. funded health centers for medical care, while they may have access to a wide range of services, safe abortion is not one of them. Insultingly, if these women seek out an unsafe abortion and have medical consequences, they can go to a U.S. funded health care provider for post-abortion care, but only after they have put their own life in danger. Not only is this policy illegal under international law, its consequences are dire and often deadly.

Yesterday, in a receiving line at a town hall in Iowa, Hillary Clinton was asked by an activist whether she would “help fix the Helms Amendment” as president, to which she gave a resounding yes.   There has been no stronger advocate of women’s rights and abortion rights in the current presidential campaign than Clinton. Rightly framing abortion as a class and racial issue, she’s drawn attention to the fact that making abortion unaffordable essentially renders the right to it meaningless, in particular for low-income women.  However, Ms. Clinton, as a part of the Obama Administration, had ample opportunity to act on the Helms Amendment but failed to do so.

During her tenure as Secretary of State, the Helms Amendment’s impact of women raped in war was raised with the Obama Administration multiple times, including during the 2010 Universal Periodic Review of the United States. However, despite the fact that President Obama can take steps through executive action to limit the impact of the Helms Amendment, he and his Administration have continually failed to take any action—to the detriment of countless women around the world.

Like Roe & the U.S. Constitution, a variety of international instruments, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Geneva Conventions, the Convention against Torture, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, enshrine and protect rights to abortion for women around the world. However, as long as the U.S. remains the world’s largest donor of development and humanitarian aid, abortion restrictions on foreign assistance, such as the Helms Amendment, will continue to impede the ability of women around the world to exercise their right to abortion services.  

Today, as we reflect on the legacy of Roe, and sit on pins and needles as we anticipate the arguments and Supreme Court decision in Whole Women’s Health v. Cole, let us also reflect on the idea that the right to abortion is nothing without the protection of actual access to these services, including through public funding. And that policymakers in Washington D.C. shouldn’t be the reason that women are unable to exercise their rights around the world.

 

Akila Radhakrishnan is the Legal Director at the Global Justice Center. She has published articles in The Atlantic, Women Under Siege, RH Reality Check, Ms. Magazine, the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy and Reproductive Laws for the Twenty-First Century.

Listen to Akila Radhakrishnan Participate in Reproaction’s Act and Learn Webinar on Helms

For six years President Obama has failed to extend abortion funding to rape victims in war zones. At this Reproaction Act and Learn webinar, advocates and experts explained the Helms Amendment and how President Obama’s continued inaction hurts women around the world. We provided a clear answer to this common question: What’s the difference between Helms, Hyde, and the Global Gag Rule? Finally, we shared actions you can take to ensure Obama doesn’t leave a #BadLegacy on reproductive rights.

Featuring these guest panelists:

- Rev. Harry Knox, President/CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice
- Akila Radhakrishnan, Legal Director for the Global Justice Center
- Beirne Roose-Snyder, Director of Public Policy for the Center for Health and Gender Equity (by advance remarks)

If you support Reproaction’s #BadLegacy campaign, or want to find out what it’s all about, you won’t want to miss this webinar.

Listen here.

Helms Amendment: Outdated, Yet Still Overlooked

The 2016 election season in the US is upon us. Politicians have already begun to declare their candidacies and have begun campaigning.

One big name candidate is Hillary Clinton, running on the Democratic ticket. In one of her campaign videos posted to Facebook on July 21, she responded to Mitch McConnell’s assertion that she is playing the “gender card” by standing up for women’s rights. A blurb accompanying the video reads, “So—what cards are he and other Republicans holding?” However, there is something troubling in Clinton’s response video that must be addressed.

The video shows a person’s hand holding a deck of cards. Throughout the video, the person reveals cards that have been edited to depict information about Clinton’s Republican opposition and their various misogynistic policies and rhetoric. It ends with a clip of Clinton speaking.

One piece of information that appears on a card is that Scott Walker and John Kasich both signed laws that ban abortions after 20 weeks, even when rape and incest are involved. While this snippet aims to undermine her opponents and reveal her commitment to women’s rights, Clinton fails to address the crucial, troubling truth of the matter: that her own Democratic party is perpetuating an abortion ban abroad in US foreign policy.

The 1973 Helms amendment prohibits any US foreign aid from funding abortions, regardless of whether the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest. This abortion ban prevents women and girls who have been raped in conflict from accessing abortions that could save their lives and help relieve their suffering.

Pressure is currently mounting on President Obama to issue an executive order overturning Helms; however, he has not yet acted. In May, five countries challenged the US’s implementation of Helms at the US’s Universal Periodic Review (a review of the US human rights record). Furthermore, in early July more than 50 human rights groups signed on to a letter that was sent to President Obama urging him to respond to the UPR and stand up for women and girls around the world. He has until September to respond.

Clinton is bold to call out Scott Walker and John Kasich for their staunch anti-choice beliefs, which impact women and girls in the US every day. However, it is time for the US to stand up for women and girls around the world and lift the abortion ban internationally. There is an evident discrepancy between the way Democrats approach abortion internally and abroad, and this hypocrisy must be addressed.

Watch the video here.

Read more about the UPR here.

Read more about the sign on letter here.