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.
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…
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…
Ideally, the Helms Amendment should be repealed.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.
But barring repeal, at the very least the policy should be implemented properly. This is not about personal opinion on the morality of abortion, but rather the principles of good, fair and effective foreign policy. Abortion counselling and referral as well as services in cases of rape and incest should be fully funded, and USAID should take active steps to ensure everyone – grantees, employees and government officials – knows this is so.
In his second term, President Obama can lead the United States away from racist and anti-human policies established within our foreign policy by one of the worst bigots in the history of Congress. So far, he ain’t making a peep. So far, he has done little or nothing to counter the so-called gift of Christian guidance provided to poor women around the world.
Jessica Mack reminds us that decades of hatefilled ideology and just plain stupidity are cast into iron bars defining the policies of the American government. Some of these are more than a little fragile – not needing much more than a hammer blow from someone with courage and a fist to hold that hammer. Ain’t seen it happen, yet.