The Helms Amendment

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 Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC), the Helms Amendment was passed as a permanent part of the Foreign Assistance Act, and 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 abortion for any reason—even in cases of rape, incest, and threat to a pregnant person’s life.

The Case for Helms Repeal

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 Schakowsy (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.