August 13, 2015 — In a letter sent earlier this month, a group of 81 House lawmakers called on President Obama to clarify that the Helms Amendment permits the use of U.S. foreign aid funding for abortion in the event of rape, incest of danger to a woman's life, the Washington Times reports (Wetzstein, Washington Times, 8/12).
The amendment, enacted in 1973, states that "no foreign assistance funds may be used to pay for the performance of an abortion as a method of family planning or to motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions." However, in practice, the amendment has been applied as a total ban on U.S. foreign aid funds for abortion care, according to supporters of abortion rights (Women's Health Policy Report, 1/16).
The lawmakers in the letter asked Obama to "take swift action to end the unduly strict interpretation of the Helms Amendment," which they said has been "incorrectly construed as an outright ban on the use of U.S. aid for abortion services" since it was passed. Specifically, they asked Obama "to issue guidance to the State Department, USAID and other relevant agencies to clarify that the Helms Amendment permits exceptions in the events of rape, incest or danger to a woman's life."
According to the lawmakers, interpreting the Helms Amendment as a complete ban on using U.S. funds for abortion services "is both overly restrictive and inconsistent with established legal precedent." They noted that the amendment has been interpreted to permit exceptions in instances of rape, incest or life endangerment in Medicaid, Medicare and CHIP, and that those exceptions have been proposed for women in the military and for members of the Peace Corps. The lawmakers wrote, "Failing to extend those exceptions to women outside of the United States does not align with precedent or Congressional intent" (Congress members' letter, 8/3).
Jon O'Brien -- president of Catholics for Choice, which shared the letter on Wednesday -- noted that the lawmakers' request is "certainly" within the administration's control (Washington Times, 8/12).