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Reproductive Colonialism: How U.S. Policy Hampers Global Abortion Rights

The Helms Amendment not only hits women who've been raped, but threatens the health of all women in developing nations.

A few weeks ago, in what has become an arms race to limit reproductive freedom in the United States, North Dakota  approved the country's most restrictive abortion ban. Days earlier, that  repugnant title was held by Arkansas, and who knows what absurd restriction tomorrow will bring. 

What US elected officials are doing to reproductive rights in the US is outrageous, but at least we have some recourse as voters and advocates. What US elected officials are doing to the reproductive rights of women in developing countries - through foreign policy that exports our own abortion hang-ups - is reproductive colonialism. 

The Helms Amendment was enacted in 1973 and bars US aid recipients from using funds for abortion services, even in countries where it is legal. However, funding can support abortion referrals and even the procedure itself in cases of rape and incest. But it rarely or never does. 

The language of the policy is  vague and confusing, prohibiting "abortion as a method of family planning" and the "motivation or coercion" of anyone to perform the procedure. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) (and one presidential administration after the next) has continually neglected to provide sufficient guidance on how to implement the policy. 

This has left ample room for misinterpretation by aid recipients and USAID staff, which is further fostered by the US' long history of politicising and stigmatising abortion combined with the undue power of a wealthy donor country. The result is that Helms is being implemented as if it were a total abortion ban. 

Maternal mortality

Seeds of  stigma and censorship have been sewn into already-struggling health systems of poor countries, hampering meagre efforts to address unwieldy maternal mortality rates. It is poor women who suffer, unable to access the safe, legal abortion services they deserve. 

It may seem incredible that a hazy global policy would have such stark real-life effects. But US-based reproductive rights groups have been diligently documenting its troubling impact in both  Africa and Asia for years. This evidence has helped blow the cover off one of the most pernicious and most neglected US foreign policies. 

Reproductive rights groups have raised the alarm, continuing to  push the Obama administration to issue clarifying guidelines. Last year, 12 members of US Congress publicly called on  President Obama to even reviewthe policy - the first time it would have received such close attention in decades. 

Most recently, the European Parliament issued an  open letter to President Obama on the negligence of Helms. Through its careless implementation (as effectively a total abortion ban), they rightly point out, the US is in  direct violation of international humanitarian and rights agreements.


This includes the  Geneva Conventions, which ensure the right to safe abortion for women and girls raped during times of conflict, and the  Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, which obligates donor countries to support the priorities and strategies articulated by developing country aid recipients. 

For most such countries, reducing the number of women dying from pregnancy- and childbirth-related causes is a priority. Unsafe abortion persists in epidemic proportions as a leading, yet preventable, cause of maternal death. Ensuring safe access to this procedure is a critical strategy for reducing deaths - it is basically that simple. 

Ideally, the Helms Amendment should be repealed. It is archaic and over-reaching, a relic of paternalistic aid that we should have long moved beyond. It was authored by the late Republican Senator Jess Helms, a well-known racist and homophobe, and is shameful as global reproductive health legacy. 

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