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Decades-old U.S. law still limits international women’s reproductive rights

Malawi - Esnart Wisted has 4 children and has lost 4 babies in childbirth. She came for family planning services and decided to have a sterilization because she does not want to get pregnant again. (Lindsay Mgbor/Department for International Development)

Celebrations for International Women’s Day were marked with some very good news for women’s health. More women than ever are using birth control, a trend that could lead to a cut in projected population growth by 1 billion people over the next 15 years.

There was also a stark reminder about women’s reproductive rights. A U.S. law dating back to 1973 prevents U.S. foreign aid money from supporting abortions abroad. Campaigners used the day to call attention to the fact that the rule, as it is applied right now, prevents women who have been raped in conflict from accessing an abortion if impregnated.

In 1970, only 36 percent of reproductive-aged women who were married or living with a partner used modern or traditional forms of family planning. The new data from the U.N. says that rate is up to 64 percent as of last year.

Improving access is the key cause to the significant increase in roughly a half-century. The law, known as the Helms Amendment, does the opposite. The July letter signed by 70 NGOs to Obama explains that the rule makes it harder for women to access abortions in countries where they are legal, like Kenya and Ethiopia. Both happen to be part of the 24 priority countries targeted by the U.S. since they represent roughly 70 percent of global maternal deaths.

“President Obama, your leadership has led to many important gains for women’s health and human rights in the U.S. and around the world. We ask you once again to lead by acting immediately to end the incorrect – and harmful – implementation of the Helms Amendment,” the letter states.

Taken together, the two facts illustrate both the massive advances made for women’s health and the obstacles that remain despite the ability to remove them entirely. For the estimated 45,000 women who die each year from illegal and unregulated abortions, changing one amendment could save lives.

“Denying aid to women victims of sexual terrorism also deprives them of vital health care and enhances the horrific effects of ISIL atrocities,” wrote Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., in a blog post on Medium. “Clarifying the present interpretation of the Helms Amendment – to allow appropriate health care services, as I have urged before – would serve our national interest.”

Blumenthal and 27 fellow senators, including presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., wrote a letter to President Barack Obama in October regarding the lack of support for rape victims. The letter specifically draws attention to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and Boko Haram in Nigeria. It does not call for the complete revocation of the amendment, rather for it to not be applied to instances of rape, incest or life endangerment.

A similar letter from 83 members of Congress written in August also sought guidance from the Obama Administration on the Helms Amendment. They want the White House to say that there are exceptions given that the rule only prohibits U.S. foreign aid to be used for “the performance of abortion as a method of family planning.” Abortion following rape and to save a mother’s life does not fall under family planning, they argue.

“I hope that the President, who has been so committed to the health and rights of women and girls, will fortify his legacy by issuing this critical guidance before the end of his term,” wrote Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., in the Huffington Post.

A new poll shows that the majority of Americans agree. A new poll by the Center for Health and Gender Equity finds that more than 70 percent of Americans agree that abortion should be allowed where a pregnancy is a result of rape. When informed about the brutal tactics used by the Islamic State and Boko Haram, nearly 60 percent of people favored the use of abortion in cases of rape.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]