Sanders Takes Stand on Overturning Hyde, Helms Amendments

Bernie Sanders’ campaign said in a statement that the candidate would work with Congress to repeal the 1973 Helms Amendment.

Bernie Sanders’ campaign said in a statement that the candidate would work with Congress to repeal the 1973 Helms Amendment. Albert H. Teich / Shutterstock.com

Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and Hillary Clinton promised to address the Helms Amendment should they be elected, marking the first time the competing campaigns have offered a concrete position on using federal funds for international abortion care.

The 1973 Helms Amendment ensures that “no foreign assistance funds may be used to pay for the performance of abortion as a method of family planning,” but allows for U.S. funding of abortion care in cases of rape, incest, and the life or health of the pregnant person. In practice, however, the Obama administration has failed to enforce the guarantees of care allowed by Helms, however slight and insufficient.

Helms, as a result, has amounted to a total ban on foreign assistance for abortion care.

Sanders’ campaign said in a statement made to the Huffington Post on Thursday that the candidate would correct this misinterpretation by executive order and by working with Congress to repeal Helms.

“As president, he will sign an executive order to allow for U.S. foreign aid to pay for abortions in cases of rape, incest or when the life of the woman is at risk. He will also work with Congress to permanently repeal both the Hyde and Helms amendments,” said Arianna Jones, Sanders’ deputy communications director.

The Hyde Amendment was first passed in 1976, enacting a federal appropriations ban on Medicaid reimbursement for abortions except in cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment.

Reproductive health advocates for the past two years have called on the Obama administration to clarify Helms. Congressional Democrats have urged Obama to “issue guidance” on how the U.S. Department of State and United States Agency for International Development (USAID) interpret the Helms Amendment in order to include exceptions for the funding ban in cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment. Democrats in October penned a letter encouraging the president to review the policy in light of the reproductive health crisis those living in war zones may face.

The White House has so far refused to act.

In late January, Clinton affirmed that she would “help fix the Helms Amendment” when asked by a representative of the organization Population Connection Action Fund. “Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m on record on that,” Clinton claimed, according to a video.

Clinton’s campaign on Thursday confirmed the candidate’s position in an email exchange with the Huffington Post, writing that “Yes, Hillary Clinton would fix the Helms Amendment.”

“She believes we need to take a close look [at] this. The systematic use of rape as a tool of war is a tactic of vicious militias and insurgent and terrorist groups around the world. She saw first hand as Secretary of State the suffering of survivors of sexual violence in armed conflict during her visit to Goma in 2009. She believes we should help women who have been raped in conflict get the care that they need,” a spokesperson from the campaign said.

Clinton has suggested that Helms should be reexamined when questioned about it at an Iowa campaign stop in November, but failed to to go into more detail about her stance on the matter.

“I do think we have to take a look at this for conflict zones,” Clinton said in response to a question about reconsidering the ban given that rape is increasingly being used as a weapon of war. “And if the United States government, because of very strong feelings against it, maintains our prohibition, then we are going to have to work through nonprofit groups and work with other counties to … provide the support and medical care that a lot of these women need.”