National Partnership for Women & Families

In the News

Helms Amendment Contributes To Maternal Mortality, Columnist Writes

Helms Amendment Contributes To Maternal Mortality, Columnist Writes

April 22, 2014 — "U.S. foreign policy exacerbates [the] global public health crisis" of women dying from unsafe and illegal abortions by hindering access to abortion services "in countries receiving U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) assistance," Al Jazeera America columnist Jill Filipovic writes.

Filipovic writes that while maternal mortality has declined since the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development identified "unsafe, illegal abortion" as a "leading cause of maternal death and a driver of gender inequality," noting that the overall "proportion of maternal death and injury caused by unsafe abortion has not changed."

"Ending death and injury from unsafe abortion is also one of the easiest goals to achieve -- early-term abortion is a simple procedure and, when done by a trained provider, remarkably safe," she notes. Yet international statistics identify unsafe abortion as the "third leading cause of maternal mortality worldwide," while the World Health Organization "identifies safe abortion care as one of seven necessary interventions to ensure quality reproductive, maternal and child health care," Filipovic writes.

U.S. Policy

Filipovic traces the problem to the Helms Amendment, which was passed 40 years ago to prevent "U.S. funds from paying for abortions overseas 'as a method of family planning' or to 'motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions.'" Although the 1994 Leahy Amendment clarified that the policy does not ban organizations that receive federal aid from providing information about abortion "'consistent with local law,'" most "organizations that receive U.S. dollars remain wary of abortion care, knowing the political tides may change," she writes.

In addition, Filipovic writes that several private foundations that aim to reduce maternal mortality -- such as Merck for Mothers and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation -- also do not fund abortion services.

However, there "is some hope," as "leaders from more than 30 countries" in late March "called for the decriminalization of abortion and a renewed commitment to the provision of safe abortion services," Filipovic reports. Areas where initiatives to provide safe abortions have taken root -- such as Ghana and Nepal -- have seen substantial declines in the rate of post-abortion complications.

"Much of the opposition to safe and legal abortion originates in the United States -- and it is both well organized and well funded," Filipovic writes. She adds that organizations need to pay "real attention ... to the high cost of unsafe abortion" if they want to actively pursue equality for women, which cannot be attained as long as women do not have the "right to both prevent and end pregnancies" (Filipovic, Al Jazeera America, 4/21).