Correcting a Past Mistake for the Sake of Women

Jan 5th, 2015 | By | Category: Reproductive Rights/Women's Rights

By Suzanne York,

Jesse Helms would undoubtedly turn over in his proverbial grave if he heard the New York Times advocating for changing the Helms Amendment to improve the lives of women in developing countries if it involves abortion.

The Helms Amendment, first enacted in 1973, states that, “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,” even in countries where abortion is legal.


Yet too many women all over the world face high rates of gender violence and sexual violence that are put at even greater risk due to this U.S. policy. Moreover, “abortions in the cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment are not abortions “as a method of family planning.”

The New York Times editorial board wrote this at the end of last year:

The amendment’s wording prohibits the financing of “abortion as a method of family planning or to motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions.” That clearly does not apply to cases of rape, incest or life endangerment. Yet it has been treated as if it did by successive administrations, including Mr. Obama’s. A case can be made that this misreading of the Helms amendment violates Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which entitles all victims of armed conflict, including rape victims in war zones, to nondiscriminatory medical treatment.

A previous ban that prohibited the Peace Corps from providing any abortion coverage for female volunteers was ended with legislation that passed last year.

A campaign has been underway by 80 women’s rights and health organizations for some time that requests the Obama to allow abortion services in the cases of rape, incest, and life endangerment.  A letter  sent to the president by the coalition notes that “Such action is necessary to safeguard the lives and health of women in developing countries served by U.S. foreign assistance.”

This is about improving the lives of women.  Every year, an estimated 290,000 women die from complications related to pregnancy and childbirth.  More than half of all women of reproductive age in developing regions want to avoid pregnancy. However, one-fourth of these women— 225 million—are not using an effective contraceptive method.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, the benefits of meeting the reproductive health needs of women would result in the following:

  • unintended pregnancies would drop by 70%, from 74 million to 22 million per year;
  • unsafe abortions would decline by 74%, from 20 million to 5.1 million;
  • maternal deaths would drop from 290,000 to 96,000 per year.

Guttmacher’s Adding It Up 2014 report found that spending just $25 in reproductive health services per woman annually in the developing world would prevent over 50 million unintended pregnancies and save the lives of millions of women and babies.


The Helms Amendment is detrimental to the lives of women in developing countries.  If it can’t be overturned at the present time, then at the very least it should be amended to allow funding of safe abortion care for women who are pregnant as a result of rape or incest, or whose pregnancy threatens their lives.

Follow the campaign at #HELMSHURTS and see also this infographic by Population Action International.


Suzanne York is a senior writer with the Institute for Population Studies.

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