43 years later, “Senator No” still impacting the lives of women and girls around the world

by Martin Fowler

By the time Republican Jesse Helms ended his 30-year Senate career in 2003, his opponents and allies had long-since named him “Senator No.” From deriding civil rights reformers as “moral degenerates,” (noting their opposition to “the purely scientific, statistical evidence of natural racial distinctions in group intellect,”) to fervently opposing AIDS research and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Helms did indeed oppose most progressive ideas. It was therefore no surprise that he found himself as one of the loudest voices of the anti-abortion backlash against the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v Wade ruling that recognized a woman’s constitutional right to abortion.

Helms — a college dropout and television commentator who grew up poor in North Carolina — had just been elected to the Senate when the Supreme Court handed down its landmark Roe v Wade decision. A product of the 1960s feminist movement, Roe v Wade considered state-level abortion bans and restrictions. In their 7–2 ruling, the Supreme Court found that a Texas law criminalizing abortion violated a woman’s constitutional right to privacy — a decision since seen as a foundational victory for the US reproductive rights movement.

This expansion of women’s rights angered conservative senators — and Jesse Helms especially so. The years he had spent denouncing American liberal ideas and programs on North Carolina television — once lambasting Social Security as “nothing more than doles and handouts,” — should have provided the public with a hint of what was to come. Buoyed by the reignited anti-abortion movement, Helms wasted little time finding ways to challenge and oppose women’s advances in reproductive rights.

He soon sponsored, and Congress passed, a bill named the Helms Amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act. The Amendment, seeking to limit US involvement in overseas abortions, prohibited US foreign assistance funding of programs engaged in the provision of abortions as a “method of family planning.” Even programs that merely sought to “motivate or coerce,” someone to perform such abortions were banned. Helms had thus scored one of his early Senate victories by limiting women’s access to abortions — medical interventions the effects of which, he opined in his 2005 memoirs, were “another kind of holocaust.”

Undoubtedly a defeat for the reproductive rights movement, few could foresee the Helms Amendment’s devastating effects. While the inclusion of “family planning,” suggested that abortions in other cases — rape or incest, for example — would be allowed, the amendment’s interpretation by the Bush Administration disregarded “family planning,” thereby instituting a total ban on all foreign aid funding of abortions, an interpretation the Obama Administration continues.

43 years after “Senator No,” passed the Helms Amendment, its effects are still being felt. Despite international law establishing non-discriminatory medical care as a right, the US still refuses to provide abortions to girls and women raped in war — who are considered individuals seeking abortions for other reasons than “family planning.” This means that the Yazidi women sexually enslaved by ISIS, for example, risk death or an uncertain future in the face of the US ban.

Recognizing that #HelmsHurts, the Global Justice Center recently launched a White House petition to change the Helms Amendment; we ask President Obama to take steps through executive action to allow for US funding of abortions for war rape victims.

Say no to the #HelmsLegacy: sign and share the petition and help women and girls around the world get access to the lifesaving medical care they deserve.

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