WASHINGTON — As the 2020 Democratic presidential race heats up, many of the candidates have called for the repeal of a long-standing ban on the use of U.S. taxpayer funds for abortion overseas.
Seven of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates recently confirmed their opposition to the Helms Amendment, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Cory Booker of New Jersey, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, author Marianne Williamson and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke.
Permitting taxpayer dollars to fund abortions overseas also was included recently on the wish list of a coalition of abortion groups and was added to the Democratic Party platform in 2016.
The Helms Amendment, named for its author, the late Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., says that “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.” It was enacted as a permanent amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1973 shortly after abortion was legalized in the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision.
The amendment has long been attacked by abortion advocacy groups who petitioned the Obama administration to repeal the amendment or clarify that it does not apply in cases of rape or incest. In 2016, both Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., came out in opposition to the Helms Amendment after a major push from abortion activists to do so.
Sanders went further on the matter, with his campaign stating that as president he would sign an executive order permitting U.S. foreign-aid funds to go toward abortion services and repeal the Hyde Amendment’s domestic restriction on taxpayer-funded abortion.
“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 Sanders 2020 campaign representative commented. “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.”
Among those candidates who have not commented on the Helms Amendment is former Vice President Joe Biden, who supported it in the past during his time in the Senate. Biden himself sponsored an amendment in 1981 that prohibited the use of foreign-aid funding in biomedical research involving abortion.
However, Biden’s recent reversal on the Hyde Amendment could be an indication of his latest stance on Helms. The majority of the 2020 Democrats have largely backed taxpayer-funded abortion by opposing the Hyde Amendment.
While Democratic candidates are opposing the Helms Amendment, current polling on the issue shows that the average American does not want to fund abortion overseas. A January Marist poll found that 75% of Americans opposed taxpayer funding of abortion abroad.
Melanie Israel, a research associate at the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation, told the Register that the separation of taxpayer funding from abortion was a concern even before the legalization of abortion.
“The first restriction that we really think about now was in the Title X family-planning program, and that came about in 1970, which, of course, was before Roe v. Wade,” Israel pointed out. “So even before the court had created this constitutional right to abortion, policymakers on both sides of the aisle had already started drawing that line of keeping taxpayer funding separate from abortion.”
Israel said that the Democratic candidates’ opposition to the Helms Amendment could be due to the increased presence in the party by abortion advocacy groups, citing NARAL’s president, Ilyse Hogue, even weighing a run for Democratic National Committe chair in 2016.
“These groups, like Planned Parenthood and NARAL — they’ve been really targeting to get their people into those party structures, so that they’re able to have the input on what’s actually in the platform and really flex their muscles and exert influence that way,” she noted. “When you actually poll the American people … taxpayer-funded abortion is not a popular position.”
Tom McClusky, the president of March for Life Action, noted that a party’s platform usually shows “the more partisan side of an issue, except it’s unusual for the candidates to come along and echo the platform,” as is the case with the 2020 candidates’ public opposition to Helms Amendment.
He added that at the time the Helms Amendment was implemented it was regarded as “low-hanging fruit” because “most people generally have opposed taxpayer funding of abortions; they definitely oppose taxpayer funding of foreign abortions.”
Tom Shakely, the chief engagement officer at Americans United for Life, agreed, telling the Register that the 2020 Democrats were making an extreme break against long-established bipartisan bans on taxpayer-funded abortion.
“When Roe was imposed on America in 1973 by seven men on the U.S. Supreme Court, elected officials responded by making clear that no American taxpayer would be expected to fund abortion overseas and that no taxpayer dollars could be used to either coerce or motivate anyone to perform abortions overseas,” he emphasized. “That’s what the simple, commonsense Helms Amendment makes clear.”
“It has been the American consensus for nearly a half-century, and it’s a sign of the needless extremism of our time that some politicians believe that trashing the Helms Amendment and spending precious American tax dollars to promote abortion internationally makes any fiscal or ethical sense,” he said.
Israel pointed out that after the Trump administration expanded the Reagan-era Mexico City Policy, which bans taxpayer funding to groups that provide or promote abortion, other countries like Canada expanded their international abortion-related aid funding.
“There are still many, many countries out there who are vehemently in support of these radical pro-abortion policies, who want to go and push those policies in Latin America and African countries where abortion is deeply unpopular,” she said. “It’s also really important for Americans to hear from the voices of people in those countries who want to push back on that kind of cultural colonialism of Western nations trying to impose this radical view of abortion on countries that really aren’t receptive to the idea in the first place.”
A 2014 comprehensive Pew Research survey in Latin America found that the majority of Latin Americans are opposed to abortion. Just 5% thought it should be legal in Paraguay. Uruguay had the highest percentage of people thinking it should be legal, at 54%, but elsewhere the numbers ranged from just 7% supporting its legality in Guatemala to 20% in Bolivia and 47% in Chile.
Abortion is similarly unpopular in Sub-Saharan African countries, where, according to Pew, there is “strong opposition.” For example, in Uganda, just 12% of women and 13% of men think abortion is “morally acceptable.”
Greg Schleppenbach, the associate director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, also told the Register that “the vast majority of the countries that are often the recipients of this U.S. foreign aid are countries that typically have laws against abortion, and they have very strong cultural opposition to abortion.”
He pointed to the words of Pope Francis, who has condemned “ideological colonization” in reference to the Western world trying to force developing countries to accept practices, like abortion, that they find abhorrent as a condition of getting foreign assistance.
The Trump administration announced in March that it would begin enforcing the Siljander Amendment, a ban on the use of taxpayer funds for lobbying for or against abortion overseas.
“We want to make sure that everything we do in the way that we contract, in the way we communicate, every organization to which United States taxpayers provide funds understands their obligation, their duty to ensure that there’s not the promotion of abortion anywhere in the world,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Catherine Hadro on EWTN’s Pro-Life Weekly in April.
The Rhetoric of ‘Health Care’
Schleppenbach said on the domestic front that it was “distressing” to see “any elected official or candidate for elected office taking a position in support of abortion generally, but, in particular, it’s deeply, deeply even more offensive that they would want to force Americans to pay for it or to participate in it in any way.”
He noted a “shift in the abortion industry away from ‘pro-choice’ as their primary euphemism to ‘abortion is health care.’” He said that they’ve likely switched to that rhetoric because “if abortion is health care then everybody ought to participate and pay for it; so I think that’s part of the reason for this push to repeal the Hyde and Helms Amendments.”
For the USCCB, he said, “it has long been among our top priorities, in terms of our public-policy agenda, to ensure that there is no taxpayer funding of abortion — so the Hyde Amendment and the Helms Amendment have been foundations of our public-policy efforts.” He emphasized that “if we lose on either of those, then that would be a severe loss to the pro-life effort.”
Lauretta Brown is the Register’s Washington-based staff writer.