In the Wake of Roe v. Wade: The Helms Amendment

USAID is essential in reducing infant and maternal mortality in the developing world.

This Sunday, December 17, is the 44th anniversary of the Helms Amendment.

What is the Helms Amendment and why should we care about it?

The simple answer to the first part of that question is that it is language added to the 1973 foreign aid bill. It reads:

No foreign assistance funds may be used to pay for the performance of abortion as a method of family planning or to motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions.


The Helms Amendment was the first federal legislative attack on abortion rights in the post-Roe era.


But of course nothing to do with abortion is ever simple. Think of the Senate in December 1973, just 11 months after the Roe v. Wade decision made abortion legal. In the intervening months the war in Vietnam ended; Henry Kissinger visited China; the Watergate hearings and the first trials of the conspirators began; Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned after being convicted of accepting bribes; President Nixon named Gerald Ford to replace Agnew; there were bloody coups in Greece and Chile; the Yom Kippur War was fought in the Middle East; Saudi Arabia led the oil embargo against the United States, raising gasoline prices from 25 cents per gallon to more than a dollar; Nixon tried to stop the Watergate investigation by firing the special prosecutor, Archibald Cox; the top two people in the Justice Department resigned rather than do so, leaving Robert Bork to carry out that order, in what became known as the Saturday Night Massacre; eventually Nixon was compelled to turn over his tapes after fighting the order in court.

In other words, 1973 was a turbulent year, a time of great change and political turmoil in Washington. Continue reading

Brothers in Arms, Part 1: Racist Anti-Abortion Rhetoric from the Restell Years to Roe v. Wade

Newspaper illustration of Madame Restell in jail, February 23, 1878

This article is our first installment in a series that explores the historical and contemporary links between racial intolerance and opposition to abortion, from the fears of immigration that fueled abortion prohibition in the late 1800s to the gender-based hatred rooted in today’s white nationalist resurgence.

In the battle over abortion, Kentucky was this year’s ground zero. In Louisville, the EMW Women’s Surgical Center fought to keep its doors open, as a governor, a legislature, and a base of activists — all hostile to abortion — made it their mission to shut the clinic down. For reproductive justice advocates, the stakes were high, as EMW stands as the only abortion provider in Kentucky, the last one in a state that had more than a dozen such providers in the late 1970s.


In the 19th century, opposition to abortion was fueled by racist paranoia.


The situation in Louisville was emblematic of a national phenomenon. In 2011, state legislatures entered a fever pitch, passing new restrictions on abortion, including ultrasound requirements, waiting periods, state-mandated counseling, and prohibitions against telemedicine care and abortion medications. Within a few years, more than 200 restrictions were enacted, and by early 2016, The Washington Post was reporting that 162 abortion providers had closed in their wake.

Boom Years for Abortion

When Ann Lohman first opened her abortion practice, her experience could not have stood in starker contrast to the battle of attrition against regulations and harassment that shutters many of today’s providers. If there were any challenges to keeping her doors open, it was competing with the many other providers who clamored for attention, with advertisements in newspapers, popular magazines, and even religious publications. Lohman’s own advertising budget, to stand out from the crowd, eventually reached $60,000 a year.

Lohman’s experience, like the EMW Center’s, was a sign of the times — but they were very different times.  Continue reading

Book Club: Sniper – The True Story of Anti-Abortion Killer James Kopp

Nineteen years ago today, at his home in Amherst, New York, returning from synagogue after a memorial service for his father, gynecologist Barnett Slepian, his wife, and their sons were preparing a late supper. He started heating soup in his microwave oven, then left the room. Seconds after his return, he stood, silhouetted by the blue light of the microwave, as a soft-tipped bullet left a high-powered SKS rifle from a wooded area 36 yards away, traveled through a sunroom window, and ripped through the doctor’s back, spinal cord, ribs, aorta, and lungs. He bled out within seconds. One son barely missed injury from the single ricocheting bullet.

The shooter escaped.


“… no civilized society can tolerate or excuse excesses that are tantamount to anarchy or to terrorism.” –Judge Michael D’Amico at sentencing of sniper James Kopp


In this true-crime book, Sniper: The True Story of Anti-Abortion Killer James Kopp, journalist and author Jon Wells takes the reader through the ensuing 29-month international effort to identify and capture James Kopp in France, extradite him, and try him for murder. Today, Kopp is incarcerated for life, was convicted of additional federal charges, and is suspected of shooting four other abortion providers in the U.S. and Canada, wounding them severely.

What can we learn from this book? I’ve selected passages from the book to highlight the important messages.

Why Kopp selected Dr. Slepian as his (allegedly) fifth target, among numerous obstetricians who provided abortion care in New York and Canada.
Continue reading

TRAP Laws: Slowly Chipping Away at Abortion Access

Repeal TRAP laws nowThis week marks the third anniversary of the decision in Planned Parenthood Southeast, Inc. v. Strange, a lawsuit that challenged HB 57. This bill, passed by Alabama’s state legislature, required every physician who performs an abortion at a clinic to have staff privileges at a local hospital. Planned Parenthood clinics in Birmingham and Mobile, as well as providers at Reproductive Health Services in Montgomery, would have been unable to obtain hospital staff privileges for various reasons, including a hospital board’s opposition to abortion, requirements that doctors admit between 12 and 48 patients a year to retain staff privileges, and stipulations that the physicians live within a certain radius of the hospital. (Ridiculous, right?)

Luckily, on August 4, 2014, a federal court blocked the requirement that abortion providers obtain admitting privileges at local hospitals — a victory for reproductive rights, but just one small battle in the larger war against abortion access in the United States.


We will not let our state laws be templates for other anti-choice legislation.


Bills like HB 57 are called Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers laws. TRAP laws selectively focus on medical facilities that provide abortions to make it more difficult for reproductive health care providers to offer abortion services to their patients. In a nutshell, TRAP laws segregate abortion from regular medical procedures, discourage doctors from providing abortion services because of the tedious requirements to do so, and dramatically increase the cost of obtaining an abortion.

Many state legislatures pass these restrictions by arguing that abortion is a risky medical procedure. However, according to the Guttmacher Institute, “abortion is one of the safest surgical procedures for women in the United States. Fewer than 0.05% of women obtaining abortions experience a complication.” Continue reading

Stenberg v. Carhart: “Partial Birth” (NOT)

Dr. Leroy Carhart

Dr. Leroy Carhart sued Nebraska for outlawing a specific late-term abortion procedure, and won.

Seventeen years ago today — June 28, 2000 — the Supreme Court struck down a Nebraska law banning “partial birth abortion,” which the letter of the law described as “an abortion procedure in which the person performing the abortion partially delivers vaginally a living unborn child before killing the unborn child and completing the delivery.” *

Pause here a moment.

Is there any doubt in your mind that these words, quoted from the statute, were chosen by lawmakers to sound like infanticide, the killing of a baby between birth and one year? Are you horrified yet? Read on.

By a 5-4 ruling, the majority struck down the law in Stenberg v. Carhartsaying Nebraska’s ban was unconstitutionally vague and lacked a needed exception allowing the procedure to be used to protect the health of the pregnant mother. What? Huh? Infanticide is OK with the Supremes? How could that be? (Dissenting justices used the word infanticide 13 times in their dissents.)


Instead of outlawing abortion in one fell swoop, opponents are going after it one procedure at a time, stigmatizing lifesaving care in the process.


First, what banned procedure are we talking about? In 1992, Dr. Martin Haskell developed the “D&X” procedure, intact dilation and extraction (the medically appropriate name), calling it “a quick, surgical outpatient method” for late second-trimester and early third-trimester abortions. Outpatient is a key word here because the patient does not require an expensive, overnight hospital stay and, as we know, many hospitals do not allow any abortion procedures at all. Dr. Carhart, a surgeon and retired U.S. Air Force colonel, wanted to, and ultimately did, adopt this technique in his medical practice as the best and safest abortion option for some women.

As I read through all 107 pages of the court’s opinion, written by Justice Stephen Breyer and including three concurring opinions and four dissents, what struck me was one basic fact: The Nebraska law prohibited previability abortions** in which a fetus had a zero percent chance of ever being born — no matter what procedure medical professionals used. At that point in its development, the fetus could not survive outside the uterus. The Nebraska law that the Supreme Court struck down, then, had been a tool to demonize and criminalize physicians who decided the best interest of the woman was served by a procedure defined in the medical literature as “intact dilation and extraction,” and by anti-abortion politicians and agitators as “partial birth abortion.” Continue reading

The Handmaid’s Tale: Dystopian Fiction or a Blueprint for the Future?

Photo: Fiona

When Hulu announced Margaret Atwood’s dystopian classic The Handmaid’s Tale was being adapted for a TV series, so many people involved refused to call it a feminist story — even though the entire plot centers on a society that has stripped every right away from women. The book’s female characters are forced to take the name of the man who possesses them, changing it as they are passed between men. Their worth is based solely on their ability to produce children, having been turned into “hosts,” or breeding units for the elite. And if you think that terminology originated in Atwood’s head, you’d be wrong — that term wasn’t from the book or show. It was from Rep. Justin Humphrey of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, just last February.


If they can take away our agency over our bodies, the rest doesn’t matter.


Ms. Atwood has stated that nothing in the book is new. Every degradation, every dehumanization is something that has happened, or is currently happening, to women somewhere in the world. And many people were quick to point to the parallels between the dystopian society painted by Atwood decades ago and the vision of a society idealized by many of our most conservative lawmakers.

Case in point: The Republican Administration recently signed an executive order allowing states to deny funding to Planned Parenthood, which will make it difficult for many low-income women to access contraception — an invaluable tool in asserting control over one’s fertility and destiny. (Vice President Pence should have known better; after all, his home state of Indiana is still fighting one of the worst outbreaks of HIV in decades, which was caused in part by defunding a major provider of HIV testing and treatment.) And attacks on access to contraception are just the tip of the iceberg.

But still, this was not really something I was going to write about, until late last month when I was listening to NPR. They talked to a young woman who stated that if Planned Parenthood would “just stop giving abortions,” then they could keep their funding. Although she liked the health care that Planned Parenthood provided, she wondered, “at what cost?

I am going to tell you the cost of not having access to the services Planned Parenthood provides — including contraception, screening for domestic violence, and, yes, abortion. Continue reading

Abortion: 1 in 3 Speakout

Here we stood, a score of women at the U.S. Capitol, there to share our personal abortion stories privately with lawmakers and online with the public on March 21, 2017. We were storytellers in the fifth annual “1 in 3 Speakout: Stories from the Resistance.” Our goal — to put a human face on abortion; said in another less ladylike way, to get in our representatives’ grills. We were all darned tired of being characterized by ignorant anti-abortion advocates as shadowy, irresponsible, hypothetical women.

“Hey, talk to us,” we demand of our lawmakers. “We’re real people.”

First, we took our rally to the Capitol steps. Just as crowds began to gather, no doubt curious about our megaphone and pointing to our “I HAD AN ABORTION” and “I STAND WITH 1 IN 3” signs, we were shooed away by police to the more distant location shown in the above photo. We had been in the path of — you guessed it — President Trump’s motorcade. He was making his last-gasp attempts to salvage the Republican bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare. How appropriate to see, just days later, his plan aborted. Continue reading