U.S. Aid to Ukraine, Others Can Help Abortion Access, Democrats Stress

Dozens of lawmakers are urging federal agencies to correctly implement a decades-old amendment in an effort to expand access to safe abortions in Ukraine and other countries that receive U.S. aid.

It comes after Democratic senators introduced a bill on July 27 to repeal the 1973 Helms Amendment, which passed after Roe v. Wade was decided, that prohibits U.S. foreign aid from being used for abortion "as a method of family planning."

On Tuesday, Rep. Jan Schakowsky, Rep. Barbara Lee, Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Sen. Cory Booker led a group of 76 members of Congress in urging the U.S. Health and Human Services, U.S. Department of State, and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to urgently communicate the exceptions to the Helms Amendment to countries and organizations that receive U.S. aid.

"The exceptions permit U.S. Foreign Assistance to be used for abortion care in cases of rape, incest, and life endangerment," they wrote in a letter to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and USAID Administrator Samantha Power.

Signs during abortion rights protest
Signage referring to reports of rape by Russian forces in Ukraine is held near anti-abortion activists' signs during an abortion rights protest near City Hall in Los Angeles on May 14, 2022. Dozens of lawmakers are urging federal agencies to correctly implement a decades-old amendment in an effort to expand access to safe abortions in Ukraine and other countries that receive U.S. aid. David McNew/AFP via Getty Images

"Unfortunately, for over 50 years, the Helms Amendment has been incorrectly applied as a total ban on U.S. Foreign Assistance being used for abortion care," the letter says.

It states that the "overapplication" of the amendment has had devastating effects around the world, most recently because of Russia's assault on Ukraine.

"As we write, there are mounting reports of Russian forces inflicting rape, sexual slavery, and forced pregnancy on Ukrainians," the letter says. "Further, as millions of Ukrainians flee their homes and country, they are at heightened risk of sexual and gender-based violence and trafficking."

It says that the Helms Amendment, as currently applied, means that none of the $1.2 billion in humanitarian aid that the U.S. has recently sent to Ukraine can be used to support those who need access to safe abortion.

"These victims, who have already suffered the brutality of rape at the hands of Russian soldiers or other perpetrators of sexual violence, are being forced to carry these pregnancies to term against their will," the lawmakers wrote. "Clarifying and properly implementing the Helms exceptions would provide access to safe abortion for these victims of rape."

Clarifying the exceptions is also necessary to ensure that access to safe abortion care is not obstructed in countries where it is legally permissible, the letter adds, citing a recent study that found a majority of the countries receiving U.S. global health assistance—48 of 56—allow abortion in at least one circumstance.

"These actions are needed in order to save lives and avoid furthering the inhumane treatment of women, especially in the context of war," the letter says.

Abortion-rights demonstrators protest outside Supreme Court
Abortion rights demonstrators protest in front of the Supreme Court building on June 25, 2022 in Washington, D.C. Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Abortion access in the U.S. will be "decimated" in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling that overturned Roe in late June but the impact of that decision "far exceeds our borders," the letter concludes.

"We know that many countries that have long used the Roe v. Wade decision to support legalizing their abortion laws will now face challenges," it says.

"Issuing guidance on the exceptions to the Helms Amendment will ensure that the United States is not impeding access to health care that is protected under local law in other countries."

Newsweek has contacted the Department of Health and Human Services, the State Department and USAID have been contacted for comment.

Correction 8/3/22, 5:25 a.m. ET: This article was updated to correct references to the Helms Amendment, not the Hyde Amendment.