Commentary Abortion

The Onerous Toll of the Helms Amendment and What Obama Can Do To Change It

Jessica Mack

As we celebrate the nearing anniversary of Roe v. Wade and President Obama's repeal of the global gag rule another matter deserves our attention: the Helms Amendment is still alive and well. The president has it within his power to lessen the toll on women. Will he do so?

It’s been almost three years since President Obama repealed the global gag rule, one of the most ludicrous and paternalistic U.S. foreign policies in history. But as we celebrate the anniversary of its repeal, just one day after the anniversary of Roe v. Wade on January 22nd, another matter deserves our attention.

The last stronghold of America’s oppressive overseas reproductive health policies, the Helms Amendment, is still alive and well. The 1973 amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act restricts U.S. funding for abortion overseas – even in countries where abortion is legal. Specifically, it 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.”

The Helms Amendment invented what the global gag rule caricatured: a foreign policy that explicitly intrudes on the lives of women in developing countries, singling out and stigmatizing ‘abortion’ from the continuum of reproductive care necessary for a healthy life. Yet we’ve heard relatively little of this “grandfather” of anti-choice policies over the past 40 years, and all the while its colonial specter has continued to haunt the United State’s legacy of global reproductive rights.

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Some are now arguing publicly for change. In late December, 12 members of Congress, including Reps. Lois Capps, Pete Stark, and Jan Schakowsky, sent a letter to President Obama asking for a formal review of the policy for the first time in history.

“We are concerned that the Helms Amendment – which restricts but does not prohibit abortion funding – is being implemented as though it were an absolute ban,” the letter stated.

The letter is a first step toward addressing a policy that has undermine the rights and health of women throughout the world for far too long.

Although Helms prohibits U.S. aid from directly supporting abortion services, it is supposed to allow for the provision of abortion counseling and referrals, post-abortion care, and abortion in cases of rape, incest, and danger to the life of the woman. Years of careful tracking and documentation work on the part of reproductive rights groups, spearheaded by Ipas and the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) have produced clear evidence that in reality, these exceptions exist in theory but not in practice.

“Despite provisions allowing foreign-assistance funding for abortion services under certain circumstances, for almost 40 years the Helms Amendment has been implemented improperly as a total ban on all abortions,” CRR said in a statement released last month.

If this sounds eerily familiar, it should. While the gag rule has been officially rescinded, it seems the Helms Amendment has continued to function in effectively the same way. Primarily due to the clumsy wording of the amendment (what constitutes “abortion as a method of family planning” and what counts as “motivating” abortion?), and the long history of the use of women’s rights to full reproductive health care as a political football, application of the policy in-country among aid workers and recipients has veered drastically toward banning and self-censorship. Groups like Ipas and CRR, along with a small group of legislators, are asking President Obama to issue clarifying guidance to ensure the proper implementation of the policy.

The groups suggest that the Helms Amendment has contributed to an overall environment of censorship, stigma, and misinformation around abortion, resulting in barriers to services and consequent deaths and injuries. For example, Nepal’s abortion law was liberalized in 2002. Yet Ipas found that despite this, and even after the repeal of the global gag rule, abortion was omitted entirely from formal USAID trainings, discussions, and manuals, and abortion groups were informally excluded from partner meetings on national reproductive health strategies.

As abortion is singled out, reproductive health services become fragmented, drastically reducing the likelihood that women will receive these services at all even under “legal” circumstances. The situation is not likely to be much better in any other country receiving U.S. international assistance, including countries where rape is being regularly employed as a weapon of war. This is disturbing when you consider that global aid funding is supposed to “help” in the most fundamental way, not harm. Unsafe abortion remains a leading cause of maternal mortality in the developing world, and that is clearly thanks in part to the Helms Amendment.

This seems to be something that everyone should care about. That the Helms Amendment exists in the first place should incite reproductive (and human) rights advocates – it is ties assistance to an ideology that flouts medical and scientific evidence and the reality of women’s lives. It should further incite us that this policy is being twisted to create additional obstacles for women in some of the most vulnerable places in the world. Yet the Helms Amendment remains a policy largely un-touched by pro-choice groups and rarely covered in the media.

The Hyde Amendment, which is basically the domestic version of the Helms Amendment, turned 35 just months ago, an anniversary that provided an opportunity to highlight the unjust, classist, and oppressive nature of a policy that most deeply affects low-income women in the United States. The coverage was terrific and widespread, delving into the history and implications of the policy, and even providing a helpful framework of lessons for activists.  Yet in all this, Helms was barely mentioned.

This is disappointing and problematic, because the two are so intimately connected. The Congressional letter to President Obama begins, “We are Members of Congress committed to reproductive rights at home and abroad…”. That line, at home and abroad, is pivotal. These policies do not exist in a vacuum, and neither do the anti-woman ideologies propelling them and keeping them in place. Their inceptions were related and if advocates are to successfully repeal them, those efforts, too, may have to be related.

Recent efforts to drag the Helms Amendment into the light come at a critical time.  Last month, the administration announced an historic National Plan of Action on Women, Peace, and Security, an executive order that puts women at the center of U.S. foreign policy. President Obama has talked the talk, now he is being asked to walk the walk. The president can ask the relevant agencies to review their policies and make guidance on the Helms Amendment and its exceptions crystal clear. He can issue an executive order ensuring that funding streams are not burdened by overly broad interpretations of an already-heninous law. The decision is in the Administration’s hands.  It is too soon to know what the outcome will be, but it seems at least the wheels may be starting to turn.

Commentary Politics

It’s Not Just Trump: The Right Wing’s Increasing Reliance on Violence and Intimidation as a Path to Power

Jodi Jacobson

Republicans have tried to pass Trump's most recent comments off as a joke because to accept the reality of that rhetoric would mean going to the core of their entire party platform and their strategies. The GOP would have to come to terms with the toll its power plays are taking on the country writ large.

This week, GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump stated that, if Hillary Clinton were elected and able to nominate justices to the Supreme Court, “Second Amendment people” might be able to do something about it. After blaming the media for “being dishonest” in reporting his statement, the Trump campaign has since tried to pass the comment off as a joke. However characterized, Trump’s statement is not only part of his own election strategy, but also a strategy that has become synonymous with those of candidates, legislators, and groups affiliated with the positions of the GOP.

To me, the phrase “Second Amendment people” translates to those reflexively opposed to any regulation of gun sales and ownership and who feel they need guns to arm themselves against the government. I’m not alone: The comment was widely perceived as an implicit threat of violence against the Democratic presidential nominee. Yet, GOP party leaders have failed to condemn his comment, with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) agreeing with the Trump campaign that it was “a joke gone bad.”

Republicans have tried to pass it off as a joke because to accept the reality of their rhetoric would mean going to the core of their entire party platform and their strategies. The GOP would have to come to terms with the toll its power plays are taking on the country writ large. The rhetoric is part of a longer and increasingly dangerous effort by the GOP, aided by corporate-funded right-wing organizations and talk show hosts, to de-legitimize the federal government, undermine confidence in our voting system, play on the fears held by a segment of the population about tyranny and the loss of liberty, and intimidate people Republican leaders see as political enemies.

Ironically, while GOP candidates and leaders decry the random violence of terrorist groups like Daeshitself an outgrowth of desperate circumstances, failed states, and a perceived or real loss of powerthey are perpetuating the idea of loss and desperation in the United States and inciting others to random violence against political opponents.

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Trump’s “Second Amendment” comment came after a week of efforts by the Trump campaign to de-legitimize the 2016 presidential election well before a single vote has been cast. On Monday, August 1, after polls showed Trump losing ground, he asserted in an Ohio campaign speech that “I’m afraid the election’s gonna be rigged, I have to be honest.”

Manufactured claims of widespread voter fraud—a problem that does not exist, as several analyses have shown—have nonetheless been repeatedly pushed by the GOP since the 2008 election. Using these disproven claims as support, GOP legislatures in 20 states have passed new voter restrictions since 2010, and still the GOP claims elections are suspect, stoking the fears of average voters seeking easy answers to complex problems and feeding the paranoia of separatist and white nationalist groups. Taking up arms against an illegitimate government is, after all, exactly what “Second Amendment remedies” are for.

Several days before Trump’s Ohio speech, Trump adviser Roger Stone suggested that the result of the election might be “illegitimate,” leading to “widespread civil disobedience” and a “bloodbath,” a term I personally find chilling.

Well before these comments were made, there was the hate-fest otherwise known as the Republican National Convention (RNC), during which both speakers and supporters variously called for Clinton to be imprisoned or shot, and during which New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a man not widely known for his high ethical standards or sense of accountability, led a mock trial of Hillary Clinton to chants from the crowd of “lock her up.” And that was the tame part.

The number of times Trump has called for or supported violence at his rallies is too long to catalogue here. His speeches are rife with threats to punch opponents; after the Democratic National Convention, he threatened to hit speakers who critiqued his policies “so hard their heads would spin.” He also famously promised to pay the legal fees of anyone who hurt protesters at his rallies and defended former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski after allegations surfaced that Lewandowski had assaulted a female Breitbart reporter.

A recent New York Times video compiled over a year of reporting at Trump rallies revealed the degree to which many of Trump’s supporters unapologetically express violence and hatred—for women, immigrants, and people of color. And Trump eschews any responsibility for what has transpired, repeatedly claiming he does not condone violence—his own rhetoric, that of his associates, and other evidence notwithstanding.

Still, to focus only on Trump is to ignore a broader and deeper acceptance, even encouragement of, incitement to violence by the GOP that began long before the 2016 campaign.

In 2008, in what may appear to be a now forgotten but eerily prescient peek at the 2016 RNC, then-GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), and his running mate, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, used race-baiting and hints at violence to gin up their crowds. First, Palin accused Obama of “palling around with terrorists,” a claim that became part of her stump speech. As a result, Frank Rich then wrote in the New York Times:

At McCain-Palin rallies, the raucous and insistent cries of “Treason!” and “Terrorist!” and “Kill him!” and “Off with his head!” as well as the uninhibited slinging of racial epithets, are actually something new in a campaign that has seen almost every conceivable twist. They are alarms. Doing nothing is not an option.

Nothing was in fact done. No price was paid by GOP candidates encouraging this kind of behavior.

In 2009, during congressional debates on the Affordable Care Act, opponents of the health-care law, who’d been fed a steady diet of misleading and sensationalist information, were encouraged by conservative groups like FreedomWorks and Right Principles, as well as talk show hosts such as Sean Hannity, to disrupt town hall meetings on the legislation held throughout the country. Protesters turned up at some town hall meetings armed with rifles with the apparent intention of intimidating those who, in supporting health reform, disagreed with them. In some cases, what began as nasty verbal attacks turned violent. As the New York Times then reported: “[M]embers of Congress have been shouted down, hanged in effigy and taunted by crowds. In several cities, noisy demonstrations have led to fistfights, arrests and hospitalizations.”

In 2010, as first reported by the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, Tea Party candidate Sharron Angle, in an unsuccessful bid to unseat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), suggested that armed insurrection would be the answer if “this Congress keeps going the way it is.” In response to a request for clarification by the host of the radio show on which she made her comments, Angle said:

You know, our Founding Fathers, they put that Second Amendment in there for a good reason and that was for the people to protect themselves against a tyrannical government. And in fact Thomas Jefferson said it’s good for a country to have a revolution every 20 years.

I hope that’s not where we’re going, but, you know, if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying my goodness what can we do to turn this country around? I’ll tell you the first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out.

Also in 2010, Palin, by then a failed vice-presidential candidate, created a map “targeting” congressional Democrats up for re-election, complete with crosshairs. Palin announced the map to her supporters with this exhortation: “Don’t retreat. Instead, reload!”

One of the congresspeople on that map was Arizona Democrat Gabby Giffords, who in the 2010 Congressional race was challenged by Jesse Kelly, a Palin-backed Tea Party candidate. Kelly’s campaign described an event this way:

Get on Target for Victory in November. Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly.

Someone took this literally. In January 2011, Jared Lee Loughner went on a shooting rampage in a Tuscon grocery store at which Giffords was meeting with constituents. Loughner killed six people and injured 13 others, including Giffords who, as a result of permanent disability resulting from the shooting, resigned from Congress. Investigators later found that Loughner had for months become obsessed with government conspiracy theories such as those spread by GOP and Tea Party candidates.

These events didn’t stop GOP candidates from fear-mongering and suggesting “remedies.”  To the contrary, the goading continued. As the Huffington Post‘s Sam Stein wrote in 2011:

Florida Senate candidate Mike McCalister, who is running against incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), offered a variation of the much-lampooned line during a speech before the Palms West Republican Club earlier this week.

“I get asked sometimes where do I stand on the Second and 10th Amendment, and I have a little saying,” he declared. “We need a sign at every harbor, every airport and every road entering our state: ‘You’re entering a 10th Amendment-owned and -operated state, and justice will be served with the Second Amendment.’” [Emphasis added.]

These kinds of threats by the GOP against other legislators and even the president have gone unpunished by the leadership of the party. Not a word has come from either House Speaker Paul Ryan or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell decrying these statements, and the hyperbole and threats have only continued. Recently, for example, former Illinois GOP Congressman Joe Walsh tweeted and then deleted this threat to the president after the killing of five police officers in Dallas, Texas:

“3 Dallas cops killed, 7 wounded,” former congressman Joe Walsh, an Illinois Republican, wrote just before midnight in a tweet that is no longer on his profile. “This is now war. Watch out Obama. Watch out black lives matter punks. Real America is coming after you.”
Even after the outcry over his recent remarks, Trump has escalated the rhetoric against both President Obama and against Clinton, calling them the “founders of ISIS.” And again no word from the GOP leadership.
This rhetoric is part of a pattern used by the right wing within and outside elections. Anti-choice groups, for example, consistently misrepresent reproductive health care writ large, and abortion specifically. They “target” providers with public lists of names, addresses, and other personal information. They lie, intimidate, and make efforts to both vilify and stigmatize doctors. When this leads to violence, as David Cohen wrote in Rolling Stone this week, the anti-choice groups—and their GOP supporters—shrug off any responsibility.
Some gun rights groups also use this tactic of intimidation and targeting to silence critique. In 2011, for example, 40 men armed with semi-automatic weapons and other guns surrounded a restaurant in Arlington, Texas, in which a mothers’ group had gathered to discuss gun regulations. “Second Amendment people” have spit upon women arguing for gun regulation and threatened them with rape. In one case, a member of these groups waited in the dark at the home of an advocate and then sought to intimidate her as she approached in her wheelchair.
The growing resort to violence and intimidation in our country is a product of an environment in which leading politicians not only look the other way as their constituents and affiliated groups use such tactics to press a political point, but in which the leaders themselves are complicit.
These are dangerous games being played by a major political party in its own quest for power. Whether or not Donald Trump is the most recent and most bombastic evidence of what has become of the GOP, it is the leadership and the elected officials of the party who are condoning and perpetuating an environment in which insinuations of violence will increasingly lead to acts of violence. The more that the right uses and suggests violence as a method of capturing, consolidating, and holding power, the more they become like the very terrorists they claim to be against.

News Politics

Democratic Party Platform: Repeal Bans on Federal Funding for Abortion Care

Ally Boguhn

When asked this month about the platform’s opposition to Hyde, Hillary Clinton’s running mate Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) said that he had not “been informed of that” change to the platform though he has “traditionally been a supporter of the Hyde Amendment.”

Democrats voted on their party platform Monday, codifying for the first time the party’s stated commitment to repealing restrictions on federal funding for abortion care.

The platform includes a call to repeal the Hyde Amendment, an appropriations ban on federal funding for abortion reimplemented on a yearly basis. The amendment disproportionately affects people of color and those with low incomes.

“We believe unequivocally, like the majority of Americans, that every woman should have access to quality reproductive health care services, including safe and legal abortion—regardless of where she lives, how much money she makes, or how she is insured,” states the Democratic Party platform. “We will continue to oppose—and seek to overturn—federal and state laws and policies that impede a woman’s access to abortion, including by repealing the Hyde Amendment.”

The platform also calls for an end to the Helms Amendment, which ensures that “no foreign assistance funds may be used to pay for the performance of abortion as a method of family planning.”

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Though Helms allows funding for abortion care in cases of rape, incest, and life endangerment, the Obama administration has failed to enforce those guarantees.

Despite the platform’s opposition to the restrictions on abortion care funding, it makes no mention of how the anti-choice measures would be rolled back.

Both presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) have promised to address Hyde and Helms if elected. Clinton has said she would “fix the Helms Amendment.”

Speaking at the Iowa Brown and Black Presidential Forum in January, Clinton said that the Hyde Amendment “is just hard to justify because … certainly the full range of reproductive health rights that women should have includes access to safe and legal abortion.” In 2008, Clinton’s campaign told Rewire that she “does not support the Hyde amendment.”

When asked this month about the platform’s opposition to Hyde, Clinton’s running mate Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) said in an interview with the Weekly Standard that he had not “been informed of that” change to the platform though he has “traditionally been a supporter of the Hyde amendment.”

“The Hyde amendment and Helms amendment have prevented countless low-income women from being able to make their own decisions about health, family, and future,” NARAL President Ilyse Hogue said in a statement, addressing an early draft of the platform. “These amendments have ensured that a woman’s right to a safe and legal abortion is a right that’s easier to access if you have the resources to afford it. That’s wrong and stands directly in contrast with the Democratic Party’s principles, and we applaud the Party for reaffirming this in the platform.”

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