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Co-written with Moraa Beryl and Dr. Monica Oguttu


Caroline was just 16 when she was admitted to a hospital in Kenya with a perforated uterus and damaged rectum. Living in a rural settlement in Kenya, Caroline did not have access to reproductive health care or information and, when she became pregnant, resorted to seeing an unqualified abortion provider to terminate her pregnancy. As a result of this lack of access to basic reproductive information, Caroline has paid with her health — she lost her uterus and has a permanent colostomy. This horrific and preventable experience is one that is shared by women and girls across the globe because of a little-known, 47-year-old racist, neo-colonial and paternalistic U.S. policy known as the Helms amendment.

The Helms amendment, sometimes referred to as the global counterpart to the Hyde amendment, is an amendment in U.S. foreign policy that prohibits U.S. foreign aid from being used for the “performance of abortion as a method of family planning” or to “motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions.” In theory, the policy has an exception to allow abortion in the cases of rape, incest or life endangerment of the person seeking services; however, in reality the policy is implemented as a complete ban on abortion.

Countries that receive U.S. aid are so afraid of losing U.S. funds that they often over-implement the Helms amendment to restrict abortion in all cases — to the detriment of persons seeking abortions within their borders. This overimplementation of the policy reduces the availability of safe, legal abortion, denies health-care providers life-saving equipment and training, and censors critical health information. The Helms amendment was enacted in 1973, in the wake of the monumental Roe v. Wade Supreme Court case, as politicians scrambled for some way to control women’s bodies and plant their anti-abortion agenda somewhere.

With Roe v. Wade enshrining the legality of abortion in the U.S., and radical right-wing politicians failing to establish white evangelical patriarchal control at home, they looked to a population they could control — Black and brown women and girls across the globe who use health services funded by U.S. foreign aid.

With this same movement trying to further advance control of U.S. Courts, following the tragic passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, it's important to understand how deeply problematic their agenda is and the damage it has caused for people across the globe through ideological policies like the Helms amendment.

We have to start with the policy’s namesake, Jesse Helms. 

Jesse Helms was a former U.S. senator from North Carolina who was a notorious racist and bigot. While in office he opposed the Voting Rights Act, characterized the Civil Rights Act as the “single most dangerous piece of legislation ever introduced in Congress” and publicly supported apartheid in South Africa.

As a member, then Chairman, of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Helms strongly advocated for cutting the foreign aid budget, stating that the “American people are sick and tired of this whole foreign aid concept.” 

Despite his disapproval of U.S. foreign aid, he still found it necessary to introduce the Helms amendment as a way to force his anti-abortion beliefs onto the bodies of, predominantly, Black and brown women in countries in the Global South.

We cannot, and should not, disconnect the white supremacy of Jesse Helms from policies like the Helms amendment.

The Helms Amendment was born out of, and perpetuates, the desire for the U.S. to impose its abortion politics and reproductive control on women and girls globally.

Since 1973, over 40 countries have liberalized their abortion laws as a result of tireless advocacy of local women and girls who demand bodily autonomy and abortion access. Instead of supporting these efforts, the U.S. is forcing countries receiving foreign aid to choose between losing critical funds from the U.S. and causing irreparable harm to women and girls by limiting access to a critical health service. Because of the reliance on U.S. support due to a continuing legacy of Western pillaging and extraction, many countries in the Global South, when provided this ultimatum, will have no choice but to comply with the Helms amendment, even if it means restricting the autonomy of women and girls within their borders.

We know that women and girls across the globe know what is best for them, their bodies, their families and their communities. They do not need a paternalistic power, like the U.S., telling them what to do. This is colonialism.

The Helms amendment has been documented to have harmful impacts on women and girls in countries receiving U.S. assistance. By restricting abortion access, the U.S. is not deterring women from having abortions — it is just making these abortions less safe. Research estimates that 35 million abortions take place in unsafe conditions, resulting in approximately 23,000 preventable pregnancy-related deaths and 7 million hospitalizations per year. This number of unsafe abortions increases when additional barriers, such as restrictive abortion laws like Helms, are added to the picture. We also know that the detrimental impact of Helms does not fall to all women and girls equally; women who are poor, young or victims of sexual violence suffer the most. Young people, particularly women and girls, already face tremendous barriers to getting the care they need: lack of social support systems, poor socioeconomic prospects and living conditions, and stigma around sex and abortion. The Helms Amendment is one more barrier — one that results in increased unsafe abortions among young people.

Earlier this summer, Representatives Schakowsky (D-IL), Lowey (D-NY), Lee (D-CA), Speier (D-CA), Pressley (D-MA), DeGette (D-CO) and Torres (D-CA) introduced the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act (H.R. 7816), the first-ever bill in Congress that would repeal the Helms amendment and take a large step towards erasing the ugly legacy of Jesse Helms. 

In this time of the COVID-19 pandemic and protests against racial injustice across the globe, we, as young people, have demonstrated our organizing and political power and our unwillingness to tolerate white supremacy, racism, sexism, misogynoir, ageism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia and any other forms of discrimination. To enact global change, we must band together, across geographic lines, to demand the change we want to see in the world.

Let’s start today by using our voices to advocate with our siblings across the globe for the abolition of the racist, colonial and paternalistic Helms amendment.

It is time for global solidarity. It is time for abortion access for all. It is time to stop violating young people's right to health, education and bodily autonomy. It is time to repeal the Helms amendment.


Lienna Feleke-Eshete is Senior Associate of Public Policy and Movement Building at CHANGE (the Center for Health and Gender Equity) where she champions the right to sexual and reproductive health and rights for all, particularly for Black and brown women and girls around the globe. 

Dr. Monica Oguttu is a nurse, midwife, Ipas board member, women’s rights advocate, and the founder and Executive Director of the Kisumu Medical and Education Trust (KMET) in Kenya.

Moraa Beryl, 23, lives in Kisumu, Kenya, and is the leader and founder of She Deserves to Soar. She is an advocate, mentor, and peer counselor for adolescent girls and young women. She is a 2019 Zuri Award honoree, given to Kenyan women dedicated to creating positive change in their communities.