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From Page to Practice: Reinterpreting the Helms Amendment

From Page to Practice: Reinterpreting the Helms Amendment

Since his inauguration in 2009, advocates for reproductive rights have been urging President Obama to reinterpret the Helms Amendment, which bans American foreign aid for abortion services in all circumstances. Though certainly not the only dangerous, anti-choice policy in U.S. law, Helms stands out as the lowest hanging fruit on these issues. This is especially the case because while most of these reproductive rights-related policies take the form of legislation and apply immediately individuals across the country, the Obama Administration administers the foreign aid that would be sent to clinics around the world. Thus, it is in the power of the executive branch to reinterpret the Helms Amendment, so that entities like USAID who oversee some of the granting process, will change the rules for grantees who offer reproductive health services.

Currently, the Helms Amendment includes no exceptions for cases of rape, incest, or where the pregnancy endangers the woman’s life, unlike the Hyde Amendment, and most other laws like the proposed 20-week ban. Along with our faith-based and secular partners, we have joined in calling on the President to instruct the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to reinterpret the Helms Amendment to allow American foreign aid to be used for abortion services in cases of rape, incest or life endangerment of the mother. As Rachel Laser, Deputy Director of the Religious Action Center, and Rabbi Marla J. Feldman, Executive Director of Women of Reform Judaism, explained in a coalition letter to the President last year:

“When a pregnancy is a result of rape or incest, or when a pregnancy is a threat to the life of a woman, safe abortion can and should be made available and accessible, and U.S. foreign assistance should support such access. Unfortunately, the Helms amendment does just the opposite: it denies millions of women and girls access to safe abortion services. While ultimately we seek elimination of this law, at a minimum the executive branch of the U.S. government should clarify existing law so that in the cases of rape, incest and life endangerment, U.S. foreign assistance is allowed to support abortion access.”

With a pro-choice president in the White House, hopes are high—yet waning with time—that we might soon see a reinterpretation of the Helms Amendment. Ultimately, we strive for a full repeal of this harmful law, but reinterpretation to allow exceptions for cases of rape, incest, or when the woman’s life is in danger is a critical first step toward ensuring that women across the globe have access to the reproductive health care they need.

The Reform Movement has long been an advocate for reproductive rights, both at home and abroad, and welcomes opportunities to engage with leaders in the Administration and in Congress to provide safe, legal abortion for women who choose to access those services. While we advocate for reinterpretation of the Helms Amendment for women around the world, we also are active in ensuring that these rights are not limited at home.

You can take action here to urge your Members of Congress to oppose a federal ban on abortions after 20 weeks of gestation. This bill will prohibit abortions after 20 weeks of gestation, with very few exceptions for life of the mother and rape or incest when reported to legal authorities. The bill severely limits a woman’s autonomy over her own body, and refuses her the ability to make decisions according to her own beliefs and conscience.