Some 81 House Democrats have urged President Obama to tell agencies that the Helms amendment does not ban all U.S. foreign aid-related abortions, but permits those in cases of rape, incest and when the life of the mother is endangered.
“In light of your recent trip to Ethiopia and Kenya, we ask that you take swift action to end the unduly strict interpretation of the Helms Amendment and continue your legacy of action to better the lives of women worldwide,” Democrat Reps. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois and Eliot L. Engel of New York said in an Aug. 3 letter to Mr. Obama.
They asked Mr. Obama to clarify to agencies that the 1973 amendment — named for the late Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina — was being “incorrectly construed as an outright ban on the use of U.S. aid for abortion services.”
“That interpretation is both overly restrictive and inconsistent with established legal precedent,” which permits abortions in exempted categories, said the letter, noting that Kenya and Ethiopia, for instance, have high rates of sexual violence and high rates of maternal deaths.
“We encourage you to take this opportunity to ensure that the U.S. is correctly implementing the Helms Amendment,” they wrote.
Catholics for Choice, which shared the letter Wednesday, said the congressional request is “certainly” within White House control.
Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, added that he and other abortion rights advocates have been disappointed in the Obama administration’s actions on sexual and reproductive health.
Rather than listening to the majority of people of faith who want sexual and reproductive freedom guaranteed for themselves and everybody else, Mr. O’Brien said, the administration “has repeatedly listened to the bishops and other conservative religious leaders.”
The Helms amendment was enacted in Congress shortly after the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling, which legalized abortion in the United States. The measure says U.S. foreign aid cannot be used to pay for the “performance of abortion as a method of family planning” or to “motivate or coerce any person to practice abortion.”
In 2013, the Guttmacher Institute said in a paper that other U.S. policies permit abortions in cases where a pregnancy was endangering life of the mother, or in cases of rape or incest, since abortion in those cases could not be a method of “family planning.”
The Obama administration “possesses the power to render the U.S. policy on abortion overseas a little more humane, at least in these types of dire circumstances,” Sneha Barot, senior public policy associate at Guttmacher Institute, wrote in 2013.