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US ‘Helms Amendment’ is misogynistic legislation preventing women from accessing safe abortion around the world, says RCOG

News 9 June 2021

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) has reacted with dismay that a session due to be delivered at a global health conference was cancelled because the topic of the talk was about providing safer abortion care.

In April, a representative from the College was scheduled to speak at an online conference, sponsored by USAID, on how definitive evidence for telemedicine abortion from Great Britain has shown it is a safe, effective and better option for many women. It significantly improves women’s ability to access abortion care, and globally this could reduce unsafe abortion and make it more affordable. At the last minute, the RCOG were notified that the organisers had cancelled the session. 

The reason given for the cancellation was that anything that is sponsored by funds administered under the United States Foreign Assistance Act are bound by the ‘Helms Amendment’. This amendment of the act states 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.” However, the Act does allow for information on abortion—which RCOG was to provide in the session—under the Leahy Amendment (“The term ‘motivate,’ as it relates to family planning assistance, shall not be construed to prohibit the provision, consistent with local law, of information or counselling about all pregnancy options.”)

The cancellation is particularly concerning as President Biden’s budget continues to include this egregious abortion restriction. The Helms Amendment prevents millions of people across the globe from accessing the critical abortion care. President Biden’s failure to exclude it from his first budget will continue to prevent women and girls from exercising their reproductive right. 

Dr Jonathan Lord, co-chair of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) Abortion Taskforce, and who was due to present at the conference, said:

“My presentation would have provided compelling evidence to a large audience on how telemedicine has improved abortion care across the whole of Britain. Our studies, which involve over 52,000 women, have been used by the American FDA (Food and Drugs Administration) to revise their own regulations during the pandemic. It was unfortunately cancelled because the US agencies governed by the amendment cannot allow anything related to abortion to be funded or supported, even if it would enable the safer, kinder care that we take for granted in a developed country. 

“We appreciate that the US Government is constrained by their current law, but to gag scientific evidence that demonstrates how essential care for women can be improved shows how flawed and misogynist the Helms Amendment and its erroneous application is. If abortion information is explicitly allowed, why were we removed?

“The real tragedy is that millions of women across the world are being denied their right to safe, evidence-based, comprehensive sexual and reproductive health as a result of the Helms Amendment and its restrictive misapplication by the US government.  

Miss Ranee Thakar, Vice President for Global Health at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, said:

“The Helms amendment undermines dedicated healthcare professionals in providing lifesaving sex and reproductive health services, including by denying them the equipment and training that they need.  It reduces the availability of safe, legal abortion, and censors critical health information around the world.

“We know that the legal status of abortion does not affect the number of women and girls seeking one, but the prevalence of unsafe abortion is greatest in countries with restrictive abortion laws. Preventing the sharing of information about safe abortion services will not stop women from seeking abortions, but it will lead them to practices that are more likely to be unsafe, resulting in preventable mortality and morbidity. 

“The RCOG wholeheartedly supports the efforts to repeal the Helms Amendment and the efforts towards the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act, so that US assistance programmes can provide access to quality, comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care services for all people, including access to safe, legal and accessible abortion care. At a time where funding to essential sexual and reproductive health and rights is dramatically cut by the UK government, the repeal of the Helms Amendment couldn’t be more urgent.”

ENDS

For media enquiries and interviews please contact the RCOG press office on +44 (0)7986 183167 or email pressoffice@rcog.org.uk

Notes to editors

The presentation that was cancelled “Safe Abortion outside the clinical setting. The evidence for no-test telemedicine” is available to watch here: https://vimeo.com/542570677/057ca87882