At least ten Democrats vying for the 2020 Democratic nomination have come out in opposition to the Helms Amendment, a ban on using foreign assistance funds for abortion.
The U.S. Congress passed the Helms Amendment in 1973 as part of the Foreign Assistance Act in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Roe v. Wade legalizing abortion in the United States. It states, “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.” Though no language in the amendment specifies doing so, the ban has long been enforced without exceptions for rape, incest, and life endangerment—leaving those facing sexual violence in conflict zones especially vulnerable.
Discussion of the Helms Amendment hasn’t bubbled up much this election cycle, but it was a topic of discussion in the 2016 race. In that election cycle, eventual nominee Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) voiced their opposition to Helms during the primary, while the Democratic Party’s official platform for the first time included ending the Helms Amendment.
This time around, the issue of foreign aid funding bans on abortion hasn’t gone entirely undiscussed. Rebecca Traister reported in The Cut in March that in 1981, Joe Biden introduced a measure “prohibiting foreign aid to be used in any biomedical research related to abortion.” Biden’s campaign didn’t respond to Rewire.News about his stance on the Helms Amendment—but the 2020 campaigns of ten other Democrats running for president did.
Spokespeople for the campaigns of Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and Cory Booker (D-NJ), as well as entrepreneur Andrew Yang, confirmed to Rewire.News that the candidates opposed the Helms Amendment. Other campaigns specified their stances and how they factored into their platform on reproductive rights.
The campaign for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) in a statement doubled down on Sanders’ promise to work with Congress to end Helms permanently and stated that he would sign an executive order allowing for U.S. foreign aid to fund abortion services.
“Sen. Sanders believes health care is a human right, and reproductive care, including the right to abortion, is a fundamental part of health care,” a campaign spokesperson said. “As president, he will repeal the Trump administration’s global gag rule, which is a disgraceful assault on women’s rights, and sign an executive order to allow for U.S. foreign aid to pay for abortions services. He will also work with Congress to permanently repeal both the Hyde and Helms amendments.”
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s presidential campaign also noted that Inslee would take executive action on Helms. “Governor Inslee believes that all women should have access to abortion and reproductive health care. As such, he opposes the Helms Amendment and its ban on the provision of abortion and reproductive care in foreign assistance funding,” a spokesperson said. “Governor Inslee would exercise executive authority to relieve the burden created by the Helms Amendment, and would aim to repeal it along with the Hyde Amendment.”
Marianne Williamson also vowed to take prompt action to address Helms. “I would immediately give an interpretation of the Helms Amendment to include exceptions for situations outside of family planning—namely for rape, incest, and a threat to the woman’s life. I would work to completely overturn the ban in Congress,” she said in a statement.”
A spokesperson for former Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s presidential campaign said, “Beto supports the repeal of the Helms Amendment to ensure the United States government does not stand between women and the access to the health care they need. As president, Beto would allow organizations that receive federal U.S. financial aid to both offer information on, and provide comprehensive, reproductive health care, including abortion.”
A spokesperson for Julián Castro’s campaign said that the former U.S. Housing and Urban Development secretary supported repealing Helms but didn’t specify how he would address the issue. “Secretary Castro supports both repealing the Helms Amendment that restricts foreign assistance funding for a full range of family planning services, including abortion, and rescinding the global gag rule/Mexico City policy, which makes organizations that conduct such activities ineligible for U.S. foreign assistance funding for family planning,” the spokesperson said.
The campaign of billionaire Tom Steyer, who launched his presidential bid last month, noted his opposition to Helms as well. “Tom opposes all attempts to deny women health care services, including the Helms Amendment,” a campaign spokesperson said. “Tom’s Five Rights Plan includes the Right to Health, and reproductive health services are absolutely key health care services for women around the world…We must support women around the globe not make their health care choices for them.”