By Lindsay Apperson
For over 40 years, the Helms and Hyde amendments have severely undercut efforts to provide comprehensive reproductive health care for women. By imposing unnecessary restrictions on US funding for abortions, these two laws have been especially devastating for women living in poverty. Neither Helms nor Hyde prevent affluent women from accessing abortion. They just ensure that women living in poverty are deprived of safe abortion services.
While Hyde adds to the oppression of women living in poverty in the U.S., the Helms amendment, harms women abroad. Helm only prohibits U.S. funding for abortion as “a method of family planning,” but it has been consistently misinterpreted to ban funding under any circumstances — even in the cases of rape, incest or danger to the life of the woman.
Without access to affordable and safe abortion services, women around the world turn to back alley procedures. According to the World Health Organization 22 million women, the vast majority of them in developing countries, have unsafe abortions every year. Every year, 47,000 women lose their lives to unsafe abortions and because of Helms, U.S. can’t do much to put an end to this “preventable pandemic.”
The Helms amendment has made the U.S. turn its back on the thousands of women who are raped and sexually assaulted during war and conflict. Women like Furaha—a 14 year old girl from the Congo who was abducted by a militia and forced into sex slavery while fetching water from the river. Furaha was held as a sex slave for months, constantly enduring brutal rapes by her abductors. She risked her life to escape while under attack by another militia group, only to find out that she was 28 weeks pregnant. She didn’t want the baby of her rapist, who was born prematurely and severely disabled. At only 15 years old, her baby serves as a constant reminder of the violence she endured.
Tens of millions of women around the world rely on U.S.-funded programs for their reproductive health care. Many of them live in the most poverty-stricken countries in the world. Some are being forced to carry the babies of their rapists as terrorist groups like ISIS and Boko Haram use rape as a weapon of war. Others give up their education to raise children that they did not intend to have. The Helms amendment prevents U.S. funding from helping women like Furaha access safe abortion care.
The Hyde amendment, enacted by Congress in 1976, bars the use of federal funds to pay for abortion in the United States. This means that the over 12.5 million women of reproductive age living on incomes at or below the poverty threshold—must pay out-of-pocket for abortion costs.
This financial burden has real consequences.
Abortions cost women anywhere between $300 and $950 in the first trimester. According to a study by the Guttmacher Institute, 85 percent of women who had sought out but ultimately did not have an abortion reported that they could not afford the procedure. Without a subsidized cost, one in four low-income women who would like to have an abortion are forced to carry their unwanted pregnancies to term. When a woman cannot afford to end her pregnancy safely, she is either forced to carry her unwanted pregnancy to term or forced to risk her life by undergoing an unsafe abortion. These are not real options.
Low-income women and women of color already face greater barriers in accessing reproductive health services such as contraception, STI testing and maternity care, making them more susceptible to unintended pregnancies. The Hyde amendment further perpetuates their marginalization by preventing their access to safe abortion.
“I certainly would like to prevent, if I could legally, anybody from having an abortion: a rich woman, a middle-class woman, or a poor woman. Unfortunately, the only vehicle available is the Medicaid bill,” said the author of the amendment, Henry Hyde.
How We Can Help Women
Abortion care is as crucial of a reproductive health service as contraception or STI screenings and should be accessible for all women, irrespective of socioeconomic class. When women have access to safe abortions, they have control over their own bodies and lives. They can make their own decisions about going to school, pursuing a career, and having a family if and when they feel the time is right. Helms and Hyde make obtaining an abortion contingent on the one’s income and wealth, preventing millions of already marginalized women from accessing health care and controlling their own bodies.
Comprehensive reproductive health care is essential for empowering women in the U.S. and abroad. A decision to repeal both the Hyde and Helms amendments would drastically change the state of women’s reproductive rights around the country and the world.
Luckily, in an unprecedented move for reproductive rights, during the democratic primaries Hillary Clinton committed to repealing the amendments. The official 2016 Democratic Platform also included a call to lift these bans, but our work is far from done. We have to maintain pressure and ensure that these promises are fulfilled. It’s time we make abortion a right for all women—not just those with the privilege of affording it.