As the largest government funder of family planning and reproductive health services, the United States plays a vital role in improving public health around the world. But U.S. foreign policies like the Global Gag Rule—also known as the Mexico City Policy— and the Helms Amendment are actually harming health and rights by restricting women and girls, especially those living in developing countries, from accessing safe abortion services.
The Global Gag Rule, which has been dramatically expanded under the Trump administration, not only restricts organizations that receive U.S. global health funds from using their own private funds or other funding to inform or educate their government on abortion or to provide legal abortion services, but it also broadens restrictions already in place under the 1973 Helms Amendment.
The Helms Amendment, enacted in 1973, prohibits the use of U.S. foreign assistance funds to pay for “abortion as a method of family planning.” Although Helms should allow for the provision of abortion counseling and referrals, postabortion care and abortion in cases of rape, incest, and if a woman’s life is in danger, the lack of clarity surrounding the restrictions has led to overinterpretation of the policy as a total ban on abortion-related services and information.
“The Helms amendment has been continuously misinterpreted by policymakers as a ban on abortion services, referrals, information—effectively anything related to abortion,” says Bethany Van Kampen, senior policy advisor for Ipas. “It hinders the ability of health-care professionals to offer abortion services and makes abortion inaccessible to women and girls.”
The need for access to safe abortion care has been recognized in international and regional human rights documents, including United Nations consensus documents and the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, known as the Maputo Protocol. A 2011 report from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to health called on states to decriminalize abortion, and the World Health Organization recognizes that restricting access to abortion drives women to seek unsafe abortion services.
Approximately 25 million women and girls around the world have unsafe abortions every year, and millions suffer injuries and disabilities as a result. Keifer Buckingham, senior policy advisor for public health at Open Society Foundations, says, “Helms puts women’s lives at risk. When women cannot have a safe abortion at a U.S.-funded clinic, they may have no option but to seek an unsafe abortion, which could mean dire consequences for their health.”
Harmful foreign policies such as the Global Gag Rule and the Helms Amendment also highlight how much the U.S. is out of step with the rest of the world. In the past two years—as the Trump administration has worked to roll back the reproductive health and rights of women and girls around the globe—Ireland has taken steps to end its near-total ban on abortion, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has lifted restrictions on abortion by adopting the Maputo Protocol, and the Rwandan government has expanded the legal grounds for abortion and pardoned 367 women and girls who had been jailed for abortion.
“Reproductive rights are human rights. A woman, no matter where she lives, should have the right to end an unintended pregnancy. Draconian laws like Helms need to be repealed. The U.S. needs to catch up with the rest of the world,” says Buckingham.
The Helms Amendment and the Global Gag Rule only affect women living in developing countries, but in the United States, the Hyde Amendment similarly limits women’s access to abortion. The 1976 law prohibits funding of abortion through federally funded health insurance programs like Medicaid, a nationwide program for people living with low-incomes.
Like Helms, the Hyde Amendment hinders health-care providers from providing abortion care to women and denies women the abortion coverage they need, often pushing care out of reach all together. Both Helms and Hyde put women’s well-being at risk and their lives in danger—particularly young women, those who are poor and women of color.
Repealing laws such as the Helms and Hyde Amendments is more than a matter of protecting human rights. It would also reestablish the United States as a global leader in the movement for reproductive health and rights.