How a 50-Year US Rule Risks Denying Abortions to Ukraine's Rape Victims
The Helms Amendment turns 50 this year, but the US foreign policy is a neo-colonialist relic that denies women around the world access to their human rights, reports Sian Norris
Women who are victims of rape as a weapon of war by Russian soldiers in Ukraine are at risk of being denied access to safe and legal abortion due to a 50-year old US foreign policy law known as the Helms Amendment, as pro-choice activists urge the White House to provide greater clarity on the law that denies US international aid for abortion in use of ‘family planning’.
While the rule does allow for NGOs receiving aid to perform abortions in cases of rape and incest, this is not happening in practice, including in war-zones, leaving rape victims vulnerable to forced pregnancy.
According to the reproductive rights NGO Ipas, there has not been a single case in 50 years where the exception has been used, while the rule itself has created a “chilling effect” on wider access to abortion care around the world.
“There’s never been a case since Helms began in 1973, where the US has implemented the rape exception where someone received an abortion who was a survivor of rape through US funding,” Bethany Van Kampen Saravia, Senior Legal and Policy Adviser at Ipas, tells Byline Times. “Never once”.
Helms was introduced as a reaction to Roe vs. Wade – the law that legalised abortion nationwide in the US until it was overruled in June last year. It bars US foreign assistance – development aid – for abortion in use for ‘family planning’, with NGOs in receipt of aid unable to use that funding to provide abortion or “motivate or coerce any person to practise abortion”.
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Ipas believes that barriers to abortion such as the Helms Amendment are leading to 35 million women and girls having unsafe terminations, with millions more experiencing adverse impacts such as disability and injuries.
While Helms has been denying women access to abortion for five decades, three issues have put it firmly in the spotlight.
The first is the fact that it is 50 years since it was introduced. The second is the overruling of Roe vs Wade in June 2022, which has put pressure on Biden’s administration to take affirmative action to support and advance women’s and girls’ access to reproductive healthcare.
The third is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, where women raped as a weapon of war are at real risk of being denied abortion care due to the chilling effect of Helms.
In August last year, a coalition of lawmakers led by Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky and Senator Richard Blumenthal wrote to the US Secretary of State to urge for clearer guidance around Helms so that victims of rape as a weapon of war in Ukraine who become pregnant are not excluded from abortion care.
The letter explains “for over 50 years, the Helms Amendment has been incorrectly applied as a total ban on US Foreign Assistance being used for abortion care” with the “overapplication of Helms” having “devastating effects internationally”, including in Ukraine where “there are mounting reports of Russian forces inflicting rape, sexual slavery, and forced pregnancy on Ukrainians”.
The lawmakers urge that the White House take immediate action to “issue clear guidance to countries and organisations that receive US Foreign Assistance, to communicate and implement the exceptions to the Helms Amendment,” including for abortion in cases of rape.
But six months on, and a year into the war, little has changed.
“All the Biden administration needs to do is make an announcement that gives direction, to make it clear that the Helms Amendment says that US foreign assistance should not be restricted for cases of rape, for cases of incest, or for cases of life endangerment,” Van Kampen Saravia says. “Allow the funds to be used!”
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A Chilling Effect
Most British readers will be familiar with Roe vs Wade and the Dobbs decision that overruled it in June 2022. The Helms Amendment, however, is less on the radar.
And yet, this 50-year law has huge implications for women’s health and safety around the world, denying women access to safe and legal abortion, even in countries where the procedure is legally available.
It is often confused with the Global Gag Rule, which prevents foreign organisations receiving US global health assistance from providing information, referrals, or services for legal abortion, even with their own money. The rule was introduced by President Reagan and has been repealed and reintroduced by successive Presidents, depending on whether they are Republican (pro the gag) or Democrat (anti the gag).
While different, Helms shares a similarity with the Global Gag Rule in that it prevents healthcare professionals from feeling confident they can safely offer reproductive healthcare. Even in countries like Ukraine, where abortion is legal, and even in cases where a pregnancy is the result of rape, Helms in practice denies women around the world their right to bodily integrity.
“There is a chilling effect,” insists Van Kampen Saravia. “The US carries a great deal of authority in terms of all global health funding, but particularly family planning and reproductive health. If the US Government is saying there’s an absolute ban on abortion, don’t do it, or you’ll lose your funding, then that has an impact”.
In Nepal, where abortion was legalised in 2002, the impact of Helms is felt everywhere in women’s access to reproductive healthcare. Ipas argues that despite US funding for reproductive healthcare in the South Asian country, Helms has led to services becoming fragmented, with doctors too afraid to offer abortions in case they lose financial aid.
One healthcare worker told Ipas how “I was instructed to avoid being involved in abortion related activities, however, this facility focuses on integrated delivery of services. I used to experience difficulties while offering counselling to the clients as I was unable to display … materials where information about abortion was mentioned along with family planning information”.
“If someone comes to us from the clinic, particularly imagine in a rural area, they’re pregnant, they want to have an abortion instead of being sent away and possibly to an unsafe situation, and they’re told, abortion is legal here, it is safe, here’s where you can go to receive that care, that can save someone’s life” says Van Kampen Saravia. “But unfortunately, because of the chill effect, it doesn’t happen. They’re not talking about abortion, they’re not counselling, they’re too scared”.
Alongside the healthcare impact on women and girls of Helms, the rule poses a deeper question about neo-colonialism and the weaponisation of US aid to serve an anti-abortion political agenda.
Helms is a legal decision made in the US, that is being imposed on countries primarily in the Global South and in vulnerable nations like Ukraine – countries which have decided themselves to liberalise access to abortion – and denying women and girls their legal right to terminations.
Of the 56 countries receiving US global health assistance, 86% allow for abortion in at least one circumstance.
The rape victim in Ukraine did not vote for the Government that allows for Helms to continue, neither did a pregnant teenager in Nepal. Instead, their lawmakers allowed for safe and legal abortion, but decisions made by powerful men in Washington D.C. five decades ago are denying them their basic rights to healthcare.
“It’s political interference,” says Van Kampen Saravia. “A country has chosen that law for its citizens, and then the US comes in and says: ‘you can’t provide that service with our dollars’. That’s an active move of interference”.
There is a certain irony here, too. Anti-abortion movements have a long record of accusing efforts to promote safe and legal abortion in the Global South as a form of “neo-colonialism” – an imposing of western values on a traditional population.
But Helms demonstrates the lie of that narrative: a foreign policy rule imposed by the US on countries where abortion is legal, but denied.
“As currently applied, Helms Amendment restrictions on US foreign assistance funds mean that none of the more than $1.2 billion in US humanitarian aid [to Ukraine] can be used to support victims who need access to safe abortion,” write Schakowsky and Blumenthal.
“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. Clarifying and properly implementing the Helms exceptions would provide access to safe abortion care for these victims of rape” they concluded.
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