The Helms Amendment is a dangerous barrier to safe abortion for people around the world. This deadly policy hinders millions of people from being able to exercise their reproductive rights and deprives them of the care they want and need. It reduces the availability of safe, legal abortion, denies health care providers life-saving equipment and training, and has resulted in the unwarranted censoring of critical health information. The Helms Amendment has been used to ban foreign assistance from funding abortion services under any circumstances, even in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the pregnant person.
Per the United States Foreign Assistance Act of 1973, “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.” Introduced by Senator Jesse Helms, a Republican from North Carolina, the Helms Amendment was passed in 1973 as a permanent part of the Foreign Assistance Act, and it has been in effect ever since. Despite the clear intent to be a limitation on abortion funding for family planning purposes, it has been interpreted and enforced by every presidential administration as an outright ban on funding safe abortion—even in cases of rape, incest, and threat to a person’s life.
The Helms Amendment has been rightly criticized as imperialistic, hypocritical (in the United States, there are important exceptions to the ban on federal funding for abortion, whereas there are none with regard to U.S. foreign assistance), and dangerous to the lives of those who will seek unsafe abortions in the absence of access to safe abortion services. Ironically, post-abortion care is permitted under the Helms Amendment, so patients can procure unsafe abortions and then have the potentially deadly consequences attended to with U.S. funds. (Of course, equipment such as manual vacuum aspirators, which are often needed to treat the aftermath of unsafe abortions, cannot be purchased with U.S. aid.)
Analysis from the Guttmacher Institute indicates that repealing the Helms Amendment would have profound impacts. If U.S. family planning programs were allowed to support the provision of safe abortion in countries where the procedure is legal on at least some grounds, those countries would see 19 million fewer unsafe abortions and 17,000 fewer maternal deaths each year. Additionally, each year, 12 million fewer women would require medical treatment for complications of unsafe abortion.
Because the Helms Amendment is part of permanent statute, full repeal requires congressional action. In July 2020, Rep. Jan Schakowsy (D-IL), along with Reps. Nita Lowey (D-NY), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Jackie Speier (D-CA), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Diana DeGette (D-CO), and Norma Torres (D-CA), introduced the Abortion Is Health Care Everywhere Act. The bill, the first of its kind, would repeal the Helms Amendment and make clear that U.S. foreign assistance funds can—and should—be used to support access to abortion services around the world. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL-9) reintroduced the Abortion Is Health Care Everywhere Act (H.R. 1670) in the 117th Congress on March 9, 2021.
Even before the passage of full repeal, however, the U.S. can take steps to ameliorate the harm Helms causes. Because the amendment specifies that U.S. funds can’t be used for “abortion as a method of family planning,” it is possible for the president to change the way it is enforced by clarifying that there are permissible exceptions for situations outside of family planning—namely, for rape, incest, and threat to a pregnant person’s life (in countries where such abortions are legal). We are working in coalition with other groups to urge the Biden administration to promote this clarification while we continue pushing for full congressional repeal.
The Abortion Is Health Care Everywhere Act would amend the Foreign Assistance Act to repeal the Helms Amendment—the first bill of its kind—and replace it with language explicitly stating that U.S. foreign assistance funds can be used to provide comprehensive reproductive health care, including abortion services.
Since 1973, the Helms Amendment has prohibited the use of U.S. foreign assistance funding for abortion “as a method of family planning.” The language has been interpreted as an outright ban on the use of such funds for abortion services under all circumstances, including in cases of rape and incest and when the life of the pregnant person is threatened by the pregnancy.
The Helms Amendment has been rightly criticized as imperialistic, hypocritical (in the United States, there are important exceptions to the ban on federal funding for abortion, whereas there are none with regard to U.S. foreign assistance), and dangerous to the lives of those who will seek unsafe abortions in the absence of access to safe abortion services.
Because the Helms Amendment is part of permanent statute, congressional action is required to repeal it. The Abortion Is Health Care Everywhere Act is the first such bill ever introduced.
Bill Number: H.R.1670
Sponsor: Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL)
Co-leads: Reps. Barbara Lee (D-CA), Jackie Speier (D-CA), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Diana DeGette (D-CO), Norma Torres (D-CA), and Marilyn Strickland (D-WA)
Latest Action: 3/9/2021 Referred to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs
Bill Number: S.4641
Sponsor: Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ)
Latest Action: 7/27/2022 Read twice and referred to the Committee on Foreign Relations
The Helms Amendment has real, devastating consequences on access to safe abortion care for millions of people around the world. Below are stories of women who are impacted by the policy.
The following stories contain content relating to sexual violence, forced marriage, and torture. These stories were collected in partnership with activist Lisa Shannon, founder of Every Woman Treaty. We have used pseudonyms as requested by the storytellers to protect their identities.
Read stories here about how the Helms Amendment has affected those in Somalia.Somalia
Read stories here about how the Helms Amendment has affected those in Iraq.Iraq
Democratic Republic of Congo
Read stories here about how the Helms Amendment has affected those in the DRCDemocratic Republic of the Congo