Two Terrible U.S. Policies That Curtail International Reproductive Health and Rights

Trisha Maharaj, Grassroots Advocacy & Outreach Fellow

For over four decades, the U.S. has severely curtailed the reproductive health and rights of people all over the world through anti-abortion foreign aid policies. These policies, the Helms Amendment and the Global Gag Rule, are different in scope, but those differences can be confusing. Here’s an explainer of what each terrible policy does in theory and in practice.

The Helms Amendment

Introduced by Senator Jesse Helms, the Helms Amendment states, “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.” It was passed as a part of the United States Foreign Assistance Act of 1973 and has been in effect ever since.

While it was intended to limit funding for abortion as a method of family planning, the Helms Amendment has been interpreted by every presidential administration as a total ban on international funding for safe abortion—even in cases of rape, incest, and threat to a pregnant person’s life.

The amendment not only denies people autonomy over their bodies, but by not allowing for exceptions, it punishes people for having health complications and for surviving sexual violence.

The Global Gag Rule

The Global Gag Rule, known by supporters as the Mexico City Policy, is a presidential memorandum that prohibits foreign NGOs that receive U.S. funding from providing abortion services or referrals. Originally issued by Ronald Regan in 1984, the policy has been imposed by each subsequent Republican president.

The Helms Amendment prohibits U.S. aid from funding abortion, but the Global Gag Rule goes further. It forces organizations in countries where abortion is legal to refrain from providing abortion services, counseling patients about abortion as a pregnancy option, or referring patients to other clinics that provide abortions—even if the clinic in question uses its own, non-U.S. funding to engage in these abortion-related activities. The Global Gag Rule also blocks funding to organizations that advocate for more progressive abortion laws in their own countries.

On his second day in office, Trump reinstated and expanded the Global Gag Rule. Past versions of the Global Gag Rule have only applied to funding allocated for family planning and reproductive health services. Trump’s version applies to all global health assistance— $8.8 billion.

Trump’s Global Gag Rule forces foreign NGOs to make an impossible decision: either continue to receive U.S. funding and deny people critical reproductive health services, or refuse U.S. funding but risk having to reduce services or even close clinics due to lack of resources. Either way, people suffer.

Deadly Impacts

Both the Global Gag Rule and the Helms Amendment threaten the health and lives of people around the world by preventing them from accessing comprehensive reproductive health care, including abortion. These policies have a particularly devastating impact on marginalized and vulnerable communities: poor people, LGBTQ+ people, sex workers, and those living with HIV/AIDS.

Rather than reduce abortion, the Global Gag Rule increases abortion incidence by cutting off services that prevent unintended pregnancies. In fact, abortion rates increased by 40% during the Bush administration in the sub-Saharan African countries most affected—many of those additional abortions are assumed to have been unsafe.

It’s time for the U.S. to end these dangerous policies and ensure that everyone, everywhere, has the right to make their own health care decisions. Join us in the #Fight4HER to support the Global Health, Empowerment, and Rights (HER) Act, which would end Trump’s Global Gag Rule, and demand that repealing the Helms Amendment be a top policy priority in 2020.

Click here to take action and #Fight4HER today!

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