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

The Peace Corps Equity Act: A Step Forward in Expanding Abortion Access

Peace Corps AfricaLast month, President Obama signed into law the new budget for 2015, which includes coverage for Peace Corps volunteers who need abortions in cases of rape, incest, and life endangerment. Why is this news item a big deal? Because 63 percent of Peace Corps volunteers are women, a first-trimester abortion costs more than a Peace Corps volunteer makes in a month, and sexual assault is a risk for Peace Corps volunteers. Of course, abortion and sexual assault are difficult subjects, and when you put them both together and remind the public that, until now, Peace Corps volunteers who became pregnant as a result of sexual assault while on the job were subjected to undue financial burdens on top of everything else, you might see a lot of criticism of the Peace Corps. And, for returned Peace Corps volunteers, that criticism might sting.


The Peace Corps Equity Act represents an important step forward.


As a returned Peace Corps volunteer, I have a hard time writing this piece. I feel like I am airing our dirty laundry.

In my experience, most people are unfamiliar with the Peace Corps. And when all that makes the news is that the Peace Corps “fails” its female volunteers with respect to abortion and sexual assault, it’s hard for those of us who know and love the Peace Corps to talk openly about these issues.

The Peace Corps, however, has failed no one — they have had their hands tied by rules put into place decades ago by our government. The Helms Amendment prohibits the use of U.S. funds to pay for foreign abortions, including those of Peace Corps volunteers. The first time I ever heard about it was during training, when we were told that it meant we could not discuss abortion with locals or counsel around abortion as an option. Continue reading