Commentary Abortion

The Helms and Hyde Amendments: More Than 40 Years of Human Rights Violations

Jamila Taylor & Yamani Hernandez

It’s time for U.S. advocates who condemn other governments that force women and girls to carry pregnancies to term to look at our own sexual and reproductive health policies, starting with the Helms Amendment, a funding restriction that turned 42 on Thursday.

Earlier this year, a sexual assault case involving a child in Paraguay sparked international outrage.

The 10-year-old child’s stepfather allegedly raped and impregnated her, and government officials denied her mother’s request for an abortion. Abortion is legal in Paraguay in cases where the life of the pregnant woman is threatened, but Public Health Ministry officials stated there was “no reason to interrupt the pregnancy,” unless she developed life-threatening complications. Instead, they argued that it would be “even more dangerous for the girl to undergo [an abortion] procedure.” Despite the clear health risks a pregnancy posed on the young child because of her age and the alleged rape incident, the now-11-year-old gave birth in August by cesarean section, as her doctors judged a natural birth to be too dangerous.

Following the incident, human rights groups in the United States and abroad condemned the government and the anti-abortion law that forced the young girl to carry to full term. Amnesty International said in a statement she was “lucky to be alive” due to the risks associated with her pregnancy, the Guardian reported.

It’s easy to point the finger at extreme cases of human rights violations from overseas. We like to think of the United States as a country where human rights are protected, and that something like what happened in Paraguay could never happen here. But it’s time for advocates here who condemned the Paraguayan government to look at our own sexual and reproductive health policies, starting with the Helms Amendment, which hinders a person’s ability to access abortion care in equally devastating ways.

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Abortion is extremely safe when it isn’t restricted. In fact, abortion carries a lower risk than childbirth. But restrictive laws create barriers to timely and compassionate abortion care, forcing people to seek unsafe abortions provided in unhygienic conditions and/or by untrained providers. Every year 21.6 million abortion procedures occur in unsafe conditions, and approximately 47,000 women die needlessly, almost all of them in developing countries, according to the World Health Organization.

The Helms Amendment—which congressional conservatives, including its namesake, the late Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC), put in place 42 years ago today, December 17—restricts any national government or non-governmental organization (NGO) that receives U.S. foreign assistance from using those funds to provide abortion care, even if abortion is legal in their country. It is the predecessor to its domestic counterpart, the Hyde Amendment, which is almost 40 years old. Reproductive rights organizations and anti-choice activists alike view these amendments as policy constants—Hyde is annually renewed in our country’s spending bills, while Helms is a permanent statute in the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act—with little opportunity for change, despite repeated calls to eliminate the funding restrictions.

Under Helms, the restriction applies regardless of whether the U.S. funds are targeted for maternal health, family planning, or refugee assistance. Although the amendment clearly states that no U.S. foreign assistance money “may be used to pay for the performance of abortion as a method of family planning,” the U.S. government’s interpretation of the law is unduly strict and to date has not allowed exceptions for cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment.

At Ipas, a non-governmental organization that supports safe abortion access, we have seen the chilling effects of the Helms Amendment firsthand in countries where we work like Ethiopia, Nepal, and Ghana, where abortion is legal but confusion, misunderstanding, and inhibition around abortion care and information exist. In many U.S.-funded family planning and reproductive health programs, the unofficial policy is for doctors to avoid performing, offering referrals, or even, as reported by the Huffington Post, being “present while abortion [is] merely being discussed.”

On U.S. soil, the Hyde Amendment is also damaging and unjust. When abortion first became legal in 1973, virtually all women had access to abortion care. The Medicaid program, which covers health care for low-income people in the United States, covered abortion just as it did other medical procedures. But then, Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL) authored the Hyde Amendment, passed by Congress in 1976, which banned Medicaid coverage of abortion for the sole purpose of preventing as many people from accessing abortion as possible. This budgetary amendment has affected not just those covered by Medicaid, but also people covered by federal and state health insurance plans, military personnel, Peace Corps volunteers, Indigenous people benefiting from the Indian Health Service, insured and uninsured immigrants, and even some private insurance plans.

We have heard first-person accounts of low-income women selling their belongings, going hungry for weeks as they save up their grocery money, or risking eviction by using their rent money to pay for an abortion, because of the Hyde Amendment. Nonprofits like the National Network of Abortion Funds and its member organizations seek to fill the gap, but 60 percent of callers to abortion funds will not get the assistance they need due to funding shortages.

Anti-choice legislators who have made abortion expensive for low-income women are forcing them to carry their pregnancies to term. These human rights violations are creating an undue burden carried disproportionately by low-income women of color. No one should be denied care and forced to carry a pregnancy to term regardless of age, income, race, or nationality.

Governments and human rights advocates have long recognized the importance of accessible reproductive health care, including safe abortion services, to ensure maternal health and women’s human rights. At the UN 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, 179 governments, including the United States, affirmed that control of one’s fertility is a basic human right. This was reaffirmed at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. In 1999, the UN General Assembly agreed that “where abortion is not against the law, health systems should … ensure that such abortion is safe and accessible.”

United Nations committees charged with interpreting human rights treaties have found that the denial of abortion services in certain circumstances is a violation of women’s human rights, including their right to life; right to nondiscrimination; right to privacy; right to be free of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment; and right to health. Similarly, in 2013, the UN passed two resolutions calling on member states to make certain humanitarian aid for survivors of rape include abortion. Governments around the world have liberalized access to abortion—including, just this month, Sierra Leone—recognizing that restrictive laws increase maternal death from unsafe abortion. By prohibiting domestic and foreign assistance for abortion, the U.S. government is contradicting its human rights commitments.

Millions of people, in the United States and around the world, receive funding from U.S. programs that improve maternal health conditions. Yet, the Helms and Hyde amendments undermine this important work, harming women, particularly low-income women and women of color, in the United States and in the Global South. The Helms Amendment is a dangerous and hypocritical law because the United States is the largest single donor for global family planning efforts and a supporter of international post-abortion care programs designed to treat complications from unsafe abortion.

Without a doubt, these are complex laws, and policymakers won’t dismantle them overnight. It helps when policymakers hear from the people they represent, and when organizations like Ipas and NNAF join forces to build a movement that can result in policy change. But there are steps that the Obama Administration can take immediately that would vastly improve the situation globally:

  • An immediate executive action to prevent misinterpretation of the Helms Amendment and allow for exceptions in cases of rape, incest, and where the pregnant woman’s life is endangered. Planned Parenthood and partners have organized this petition calling for an end to Helms.
  • Remove the Hyde Amendment from the fiscal year 2017 budget proposal. A coalition of reproductive and social justice organizations have created a petition urging President Obama to take this action, and it is now open for signatures.

Ultimately, in order for people around the world to realize full equality and reproductive freedom as our own human rights principles set out to do, these funding restrictions must be repealed. Everyone, regardless of their socioeconomic status or geography, deserves to be afforded the dignity to make personal decisions about pregnancy and childbearing and to access the reproductive health care necessary to make those decisions. For more than 40 years, U.S. policies have been allowed to violate the human rights of women at home and abroad. Isn’t it time the United States makes its abortion funding policies, both national and international, consistent with its other financial and political commitments to reproductive health?

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