Anne Keyworth, Resident Blogger (’16, North Carolina Central University)
The Helms Amendment, enacted in 1973, placed restrictions on reproductive health organizations that receive US funding. It is supposed to permit reproductive health organizations to assist women with post-abortion care and abortion services in the instances of rape, incest, and risk of serious harm to the health of the woman. However, it has instead been interpreted by many US aid agencies as a complete ban on abortion services or equipment, and the results of this have been devastating.
Part of what the law has been interpreted to mean is that such agencies and their employees cannot engage in conversations about abortion, despite whether the procedure is legal in the given country or not. This effectively means that such agencies must censor the language they use and the conversations they may engage in with the women and families they serve. Furthermore, it has been so pervasive that it has even been attached as a condition to funding given to foreign country’s governments. For example, the United States granted Afghanistan $4.2 million for building democracy, under the condition that it agrees to the restrictions of the Helms Amendment.
One of the things I learned in my Constitutional Law class was that conditional grants being offered to states cannot be coercive, meaning that the consequences of not meeting the condition cannot be overly harsh and leave the state with no choice in the matter. Clearly, the same standard has not been applied to matters pertaining to international aid. Instead, the United States has continued to impose its political ideologies (specifically, the 1973 ideologies of the Senator who introduced the amendment, Jessie Helms – a man known for his anti-woman and homophobic beliefs) on those who accept US aid, and consequently on the women who approach such agencies when they most need unbiased, uncensored medical information; not American politics.
Censorship of maternal health and rights discussions pertaining to abortion are already pervasive in many countries, and this disproportionately impacts low income women and families in need of safe and legal reproductive health services. But many countries are seeking to expand their approach to maternal healthcare and are being stifled by the demands of the Helms Amendment. Nepal, for example, began implementing a plan to more comprehensively approach abortion care in 2004, and abortion services were made available in every district within the next five years. This was a much less restrictive approach to abortion that it had previously held. However, navigating the unclear requirements of the Helms Amendment led to restrictions on which agencies could fully implement the new law of Nepal.
The political restrictions the US is placing on countries who accept its aid act as a pervasive form of censorship, specifically related to abortion. Until this stops, abortion services will continue to be scattered and rare, and women in need of such services face unnecessary political obstacles in obtaining the medical care of their choice. Our politics has no business interfering with women’s medical decisions.