(C-Fam) It is clear to friend and foe alike that the new Biden administration intends to overturn the Helms Amendment that has blocked taxpayer funds for abortion for nearly half a century. The U.S. indicated this change in position in a submission to the UN’s Human Rights Council late last week, in which it declared “It is the policy of the U.S. to support women’s and girls’ sexual and reproductive health and rights in the U.S., as well as globally.”
That this is a new policy is indicated by how the issue was treated by previous administrations. In November, the U.S. took its turn to have its human rights record reviewed by the other nations of the world in a process known as the Universal Periodic Review (UPR).
In particular, the Netherlands urged the U.S. to “[r]epeal the Helms Amendment and the Protecting Life in Global Health Assistance Policy and, in the interim, allow United States foreign assistance to be used, at a minimum, for safe abortion in cases of rape, incest and life endangerment.”
At the meeting at the time, the U.S. under Trump pushed back on several mostly European countries’ recommendations to fund abortions overseas. And then two things happened. First, the election of Joe Biden as president and then the part of the UPR process where governments provide written responses. Whereas the Trump team verbally pushed back, the Biden team in its written and formal response agreed with the Europeans that international law requires the U.S. to strike down the Helms Amendment.
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Specifically, the Biden administration “supported” the recommendation of the Netherlands, as well as others from Norway, Austria, and Canada that called for the removal of restrictions on funding for “sexual and reproductive health” services abroad. This was not only a reversal of the Trump administration’s policies, but also a significant change from the Obama administration’s handling of similar requests during the U.S.’s previous turns at the UPR in 2011 and 2015, which were “noted” despite the administration’s general pro-abortion position.
The Helms Amendment was passed by Congress and signed into law, and as such, President Biden cannot overturn it. In an introductory section, the U.S. acknowledges that some recommendations “request action not entirely within the power of our Federal Executive Branch” and stated, “[w]e support … these recommendations when we share their ideals, are making serious efforts to achieve their goals, and intend to continue doing so.”
However, Biden could potentially reinterpret Helms to include exceptions, as recommended by the Netherlands. The Obama administration had considered doing so, but refrained out of concern that protections for health workers’ conscience rights would have to be added.
In a worrying sign for conscience rights, the U.S. also supported a recommendation by Australia to “[e]nsure that laws permitting the refusal of care based on religious and moral beliefs do not restrict women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights.”
It remains to be seen what steps, if any, the Biden administration will take on the Helms Amendment, which is also facing new threats in the Democrat-controlled Congress. Meanwhile, international pro-life advocates may draw a small measure of comfort from the U.S.’s standard disclaimer to its UPR submission, which states that its responses should not be taken to mean that the U.S. regards every recommendation received as “subject to U.S. international human rights obligations.”