Half a Century of the Helms Amendment Is Five Decades Too Long

Written by Marian Starkey | Published: December 17, 2023

Fifty years ago today, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) reacted to the Roe v. Wade decision that affirmed the national right to abortion by making sure women in developing countries couldn’t have their safe and legal abortions paid for with U.S. foreign assistance. He did this during his very first year in Congress, in 1973—the first of 30 years that he would spend spewing misogynistic and otherwise mean-spirited rhetoric as a U.S. senator.

He’s no longer in Congress, or even still among the living (he died in 2008, on the 4th of July), but his cruel policy is as alive as ever.

Regardless of abortion laws in aid-recipient countries—whether the procedure is legal under all, limited, or no circumstances—the Helms Amendment has prevented U.S. foreign aid from funding any and all abortions, even to save a pregnant person’s life. It has even been used to prevent the use of funds to purchase equipment necessary to provide emergency care in the wake of miscarriages and botched, unsafe abortions because that equipment could technically also be used to provide safe abortions. The actual text of the amendment says, “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,” but it’s always been interpreted as an outright ban on abortion funding, regardless of a patient’s circumstances.

There’s a domestic policy that’s nearly as nasty as Helms, called the Hyde Amendment. Introduced by Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL) in 1976, it prohibits federal funding (via insurance programs such as Medicaid, Medicare, and CHIP) from being used to pay for Americans’ abortions. As horrendous as Hyde is, though, there are important exceptions to the ban on funding: when there’s a threat to a patient’s life (the only exception when the bill first passed) and/or when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest (added later). In practice, as the Helms Amendment has always been applied, there are no such exceptions to the ban on funding abortion overseas.

If Helms were repealed, according to analysis by the Guttmacher Institute, each year, developing countries could experience 19 million fewer unsafe abortions, 17,000 fewer maternal deaths, and 12 million fewer medical interventions to address complications of unsafe abortion. In other words, getting rid of Helms would be an incredibly “pro-life” act.

Alas, Congress has never voted to overturn the Helms Amendment, and no U.S. president has ever clarified or reinterpreted the law to allow abortions to be funded in cases where they aren’t being performed “as a method of family planning.”

There is a bill in Congress—the Abortion Is Health Care Everywhere Act—that would repeal Helms. It was first introduced in the House of Representatives in 2020 and in the Senate in 2022 by lead sponsors Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), respectively. It was reintroduced in both houses of Congress in March 2023.

When Rep. Schakowsky reintroduced the Abortion Is Health Care Everywhere Act this year, she said:

“We must protect women’s health around the globe. By singling out abortion as a restricted health service, the Helms Amendment reinforces efforts to criminalize abortion and heightens abortion-related stigma.”

Rep. Barbara Lee, a co-lead on the bill with Rep. Schakowsky, said:

“The disastrous Helms Amendment is more than a line item in our appropriations bills. It is more than a logistical challenge for recipients of U.S. foreign aid. It is a matter of life or death. I urge my colleagues to support this vital bill, finally repeal Helms, and ensure every community our foreign assistance dollars reach gets the care they need.”

Unfortunately, the Abortion Is Health Care Everywhere Act has never been voted upon, and it’s clear that the level of support necessary to pass the bill doesn’t currently exist anyway, especially in the House, where the Republican majority is promoting new and even more repugnant restrictions on reproductive health care.

Which brings me to the importance of the 2024 Election. Until we have a clear majority in both houses of Congress that supports comprehensive reproductive health and rights, we can’t make progress on legislation that would protect the basic human right to bodily autonomy and affirm abortion as a safe, necessary, normal aspect of reproductive health care.

Join our #Fight4HER campaign to help us mobilize voters in competitive congressional districts to elect candidates who support reproductive freedom. It’s the only way to end this half-century of hostility toward women’s health, rights, and lives.