The first bill to repeal a US law preventing aid from funding abortion services overseas was introduced to congress on Wednesday.
Democratic congressswoman Jan Schakowsky said the Helms amendment, a policy introduced in 1973, was “deeply rooted in racism” and must be replaced to allow US money to be used to support safe abortion services worldwide.
Named after Senator Jesse Helms, the amendment prevents the use of aid for abortion as a family planning method, or to coerce women into having terminations. Although it does allow exceptions in cases of rape, incest or when a women’s life is in danger, it has been widely interpreted as a total ban on funding abortion services.
The new bill is not expected to pass in the short-term, but is part of a longer-term strategy by Democrats to uphold women’s reproductive health rights, which have come under sustained attack from the Trump administration.
The bill states that abortion “is a critical component of sexual and reproductive healthcare and should be accessible and affordable for all people” and adds that restricting abortion does not reduce need or numbers.
The Guttmacher Institute estimates that worldwide at least 22,800 women die from unsafe abortions annually.
The draft of the Democrat party’s 2020 platform, agreed earlier this week, includes support to repeal Helms.
“It [Helms] imposes our arbitrary and medically unnecessary abortion restrictions on international communities, allowing the US to control the healthcare and bodily autonomy of billions of black and brown people around the world,” Schakowsky said on Wednesday.
She said the Helms amendment, along with the Hyde amendment, which restricts federal funding for abortion in the US, “put reproductive and economic freedom out of reach for women of colour”.
“Enough is enough, and both amendments must fall if we want to realise true health equity and reproductive justice. Comprehensive reproductive healthcare, including safe, legal, and accessible abortion, is a human right.”
Stacie Murphy, a director at the Population Connection grassroots organisation, said the bill marked “an historic step forward”.
“There’s a recognition that it’s time to make this a priority and move in this direction. We don’t expect this to happen immediately. There’s a lot of education that still needs to be done and there’s a lot of entrenched resistance to this idea. But we are committed,” she said.
Ernest Nyamato, a Kenyan doctor who works with health charity Ipas, added: “As someone who has worked in multiple roles in health and human rights, I see just how critical comprehensive healthcare, including abortion, is for people, their families, and their communities.
“Unfortunately, we are already seeing health inequities grow due to Covid-19 and people using the crisis to try to eliminate abortion access.”