The Helms Amendment, also known as the Helms Amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act, is a 1973 amendment, passed by the U.S. Congress in the wake of the Roe v. Wade decision by the United States Supreme Court, to limit the use of US foreign assistance for abortion. Named after North Carolina senator Jesse Helms, the amendment states that "no foreign assistance funds may be used to pay for the performance of abortion as a method of family planning or to motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions." In addition, this amendment overturned previous rulings that state that the unborn is not a "person" yet and therefore does not have constitutional rights, changing the stance on abortion not only in funding but also in the courts. However, if one is able to afford an abortion, the amendment allows for post-abortion care.
Despite its focus on "abortion as a method of family planning," American global health funding programs, such as USAID, currently interpret the Helms Amendment language to exclude funding for abortion services in cases not connected to family planning, such as rape, incest, or to save the life of the woman.
The Agency for International Development (AID) halted most abortion related activity due to the passing of the amendment, though they had previously been a very prominent supporter of abortion. This left the World Bank and The United Nations Fund for Population Activities as the only publicly open contributions of support.
Several pro-life groups support the current interpretation of the Helms Amendment to exclude abortions for rape or incest, considering it an important ban on "taxpayer-funded abortions." C-FAM, a Catholic organization, notes that "giving a rape exception to the ban on abortion funding will further stigmatize and therefore harm children born of rape who are already vulnerable."
In 1990 Congress provided clarity on the amendment advising USAID programs are in fact allowed to provide counseling and information on all pregnancy options as long as the programs are following each countries' laws.
Several pro-choice and human rights organizations, including Planned Parenthood, the Global Justice Center, Population Action International, the Center for Health and Gender Equity, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International USA had pressured United States President Barack Obama to mitigate what they consider the harmful effects of the Helms Amendment. Population Action International, for example, notes that since the Helms Amendment restricts US funds for abortions "as a method of family planning," abortions "conducted as a result of rape, incest, and abortions to save women's lives, are eligible for U.S. support." The Center for Health and Gender Equity has worked closely with human rights and faith-based organizations in calling on President Obama to take executive action on the Helms Amendment for women raped in conflict. And, more than 100 Members of Congress also had called on President Obama to take action. One of the ways that President Obama could have taken action would have been through the issuance of a Presidential Memorandum. President Obama never issued a Presidential Memorandum on the Helms Amendment.
During the 2016 Democratic Presidential Primary, candidates (former) Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) each pledged that as President they would take executive action on Helms and work to repeal the Amendment entirely.
Many women's rights activists and defenders of women's health await for the law to be repealed. There are many effects women have faced due to the passing of this amendment, such as approximately 47,000 women perishing annually due to unsafe or illegal abortions (most in foreign countries). Also, many reported abortions in foreign countries are being performed in unsafe ways by people without proper qualifications and in places that are not fit to medical standards.
Mexico City Policy, called the Global Gag Rule by opponents, is in accordance with the Helms Amendment of 1973. The order bans foreign aid from the United States to be directed to any non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that provide any services relating to abortions. Mexico City Policy was first initiated in 1984 by then President Reagan and remained active through former President Bush. In 1993 when former President Clinton took office the order was rescinded until 2001. Former President George W. Bush placed the order back into effect until his presidency was over in 2009. Then when former President Obama took office the order was once again rescinded until 2017. On Jan 23, 2017 President Donald Trump, signed an executive order implementing the order once again.
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