Stop Exporting Harmful U.S. Anti-Abortion Policy. Repeal the Helms Amendment | Opinion

It has been just over a month since the Supreme Court decided to undo 50 years of precedent by overturning Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v Casey. The effect has already been devastating, with abortion banned outright in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Texas, and severely restricted in Georgia, Kentucky, Ohio, South Carolina, and Tennessee. The chaos will not end there—more states will ban or severely restrict abortion, escalating the ongoing crisis.

Rolling back abortion rights is a gross violation of human rights, and makes the U.S. an outlier globally. In the last three decades, the U.S. and only 10 other countries restricted abortion access, but 59 countries liberalized their abortion laws. For example, in 2018 Ireland overturned its ban on abortion in a national referendum. In 2021, abortion was decriminalized in South Korea by court order. In this hemisphere, we recently saw the hard work of abortion rights advocates in Latin America pay off with the green wave liberalizing abortion laws in Mexico, Argentina, and Colombia.

Not only did the overturning of Roe make the U.S. an outlier by rolling back abortion rights, it has the potential to send reverberations around the world. Despite the huge movement to liberalize abortion rights around the world, the decision could embolden opponents worldwide to take action to roll back that progress. Anti-abortion activists may not be the only ones—governments and politicians abroad seeking to restrict abortion rights could also use the U.S. as justification to restrict access to abortion in their own countries.

Meanwhile, even while Roe was in force, the U.S. actively exported harmful anti-abortion policy for almost 50 years with the Helms Amendment. It bans U.S. foreign assistance to other countries to be used to pay for abortion "as a method of family planning." It has often been over-implemented as a de facto complete ban on abortion—even in cases of rape, incest, or risk to the mother's life. It hurts the very people U.S. aid purports to help by denying them access to comprehensive health care and access to safe abortion care, driving up maternal mortality.

The Helms Amendment is a racist, colonialist, anti-democratic policy that thrusts politics and politicians between doctors and patients, putting at risk the health, lives, and reproductive freedom of people around the world who have zero say in U.S. anti-abortion policies that nonetheless profoundly impact their lives. It's time to repeal it. Ending the Helms Amendment would lead to 19 million fewer unsafe abortions and 17,000 fewer maternal deaths every year.

View of the US Capitol
View of the U.S. Capitol. STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images

Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.) along with Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), and Tina Smith (D-Minn.) recently introduced the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act. It would end the Helms Amendment, and enable the U.S. to fund comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services for people around the world, including safe abortion. Ending Helms now would save lives and limit global fallout from rolling back abortion rights in the U.S.

The Biden administration also needs to step up and do its part to prevent the overturning of Roe from having the same kind of devastating impacts abroad that it is having in the U.S. It must speak out in all international fora to support sexual and reproductive health and rights, and explicitly champion abortion rights. That includes using the word "abortion." We cannot keep stigmatizing basic health care by referencing abortion only obliquely, calling it "women's health" or "reproductive rights." We need to call it what it is.

Abortion is a human right. Everyone, no matter where they live, deserves access to abortion care. That's why Congress must pass the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act to end the Helms Amendment. And while it's working to correct terrible polices that block funding for abortion care, Congress should also pass the Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance (EACH) Act repealing the Hyde Amendment, which blocks federal funding for abortions in the U.S.

Jennie Wetter is the director of public policy at the Population Institute, which supports reproductive health and rights. She is also host of the rePROs Fight Back podcast.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.