When my grandfather presented the proposal, he was a freshman Conservative senator with something to prove. He set out to disband the United States Agency for International Development, the agency that provides American foreign aid around the world, and when that didn’t work, he set his sights on another mission: prohibit USAID from funding abortion care.
Unfortunately, he succeeded. The Helms Amendment, enacted as part of the Foreign Assistance Act on December 17, 1973, sought to undermine access to abortion internationally. Although it prohibits the use of any U.S. foreign aid funds for “abortion as a method of family planning,” it has been interpreted and enforced by every presidential administration since 1973 as an outright ban on fund safe abortion – and provide information on abortion – including in cases where women have been raped, forced into incestuous relationships or whose pregnancies are life-threatening. And this applies even in countries where abortion is legally permitted.
The president has pledged to do all he can to mitigate the disaster at the Supreme Court; now is the perfect time for Biden to end this cruel and extreme law enforcement, a power that is already within his purview.
Until it acts, the United States actively discriminates against women and pregnant women who need reproductive health care, including abortion, and who receive their health care in facilities funded by the United States. USAID. This means that many women turn to unsafe abortion – 35 million each year, in fact. And tens of thousands of mothers, aunts, sisters, daughters and others died needlessly because of the Helms Amendment – because of my grandfather.
During the time of the Helms Amendment, my grandfather also aligned himself with notorious dictator Augusto Pinochet of Chile and later death squad commander Major Roberto D’Aubuisson of El Salvador. Thousands of women were raped, tortured and murdered during those bloody years in Latin America. It is no secret that the use of rape as a method of political violence and oppression against women is all too common in this type of political upheaval. Look at the situation in Ukraine now. The language of the Helms Amendment does not actually prohibit recipients of USAID funding from assisting these women – but, again, it has been interpreted as such, and therefore in practice in virtually every country that receive U.S. foreign aid, and even in humanitarian crises. , rape victims have been denied abortion services since 1973, when my grandfather’s amendment passed. It is time for this to stop.
By the end of his 30-year career in the Senate, my grandfather had softened his stance on important issues. If I understand correctly, President Biden, you played a role in his early reassessment process via the Helms-Biden Act. The work he did with you and others with this law to both reform the United Nations (another organization he hated and wanted to disband) and pay off the US government’s debt to the UN, has without no doubt helped prepare my grandfather for his future relationship with Bono from U2 on HIV/AIDS issues. He worked with Bono and USAID on a landmark aid package, allocating $500 million to stop the transmission of HIV from mother to unborn child. It’s a part of my grandfather’s legacy that I’m proud of; it inspired me to become an activist and work with Ipas, an international reproductive justice organization that began its work in 1973, in part because of the Helms Amendment.
My grandfather has been gone for over a decade. But the harmful consequences of his tenure remain. We are now reeling from the dismantling of Roe vs. Wade. And what we do know is that poor black and brown people in the United States will bear the burden, just as they bear the burden of the Helms Amendment in countries thousands of miles from the United States.
With a spirit of transformation and change, President Biden, you can help end preventable death and unnecessary suffering. The administration should, as a start, end the unnecessarily broad application of the Helms Amendment and clarify that the term “abortion as a method of family planning” does not apply to abortions performed in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the pregnant person. You should also champion legislation to repeal the amendment altogether.
Accepting the Helms Amendment has special meaning for me, as it would help end one of my grandfather’s harmful legacies – but more importantly, it would make the world a healthier, safer and fairer place for all .
The opinion expressed here is my own. I do not speak on behalf of any of my family members or any organization related to my grandfather.