A snapshot of US International Abortion Policy, 1970–Present

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A glance at the road to preserving and advancing safe abortion rights throughout the world post-Roe v. Wade.

1970s


1973 – The US Supreme Court hands down landmark Roe vs. Wade decision, establishing a woman’s right to choose abortion to terminate a pregnancy.


1973 – Congress passes the Helms Amendment which restricts, but does not prohibit US foreign assistance funding for abortion services. Under the amendment, US foreign assistance funding may not pay for the “performance of abortion as a method of family planning," but it can fund abortion services for non-family planning purposes, such as abortions for women whose life is threatened by a continued pregnancy, or women who are the victims of rape or incest.

Despite the fact that current law permits foreign assistance funds to cover abortions in the cases of life, rape, or incest, the Helms Amendment is applied as a blanket ban for any and all abortion-related services.

1980s


1984 – International abortion restrictions expand when the Reagan administration announces the Mexico City Policy. Widely known as the "Global Gag Rule", the executive order prohibits US funds from going to organizations that provide any abortion-related information, education, services, or referrals to services.


Pathfinder files a lawsuit challenging the Global Gag Rule, and files amicus briefs in support of two other abortion-related cases.


1985 – Pathfinder initiates a postabortion care program in Brazil.

1990s


1990 – Pathfinder resumes safe abortion work after a landmark court case clarifies that the Global Gag Rule recognizes a US-based NGO’s right to use private funds without any government interference, exempting US-based NGOs from the Global Gag Rule. The court also ruled that USAID is permitted to provide support for postabortion care services.


Pathfinder begins safe abortion care work in Azerbaijan, Bolivia, Ecuador, Kazakhstan, and Peru.
1993 – President Bill Clinton rescinds the gag rule.

1993 – Pathfinder cofounds the Postabortion Care Consortium, hosting the group’s inaugural meeting.



1994Senator Patrick Leahy introduced an amendment clarifying the Helms Amendment that stated, "For purposes of this or any other Act authorizing or appropriating funds for the Department of State, foreign operations, and related programs, 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 counseling about all pregnancy options."

The Leahy provision addressed concerns that providing information or counseling about all legal pregnancy options could be viewed as violating the Helms amendment.

2000s


Pathfinder supports safe abortion services in Angola, Bolivia, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Ghana, Haiti, India, Mozambique, Nepal, Nigeria, Romania, and Uganda.


2001 – President George W. Bush reinstates the gag rule.
2001 – Pathfinder collaborates with several leading sexual and reproductive health and rights organizations to study the impact of the gag rule on international family planning and reproductive health services as part of an initiative called “Access Denied: The Global Gag Rule Impact Project”.
2003 – President George W. Bush expands the scope of the gag rule to include organizations receiving funding through the State Department.

2008 – President Barack Obama rescinds the Global Gag Rule.
2009 – Senator Frank Lautenberg introduces an amendment to permanently protect overseas family planning providers from reinstatement of the Global Gag Rule. Lautenberg has reintroduced this amendment in 2010, 2011, and 2012.
2010 – Congresswoman Nita Lowey introduces the Global Democracy and Promotion Act, which would ensure that foreign NGOs would not be barred from receiving US foreign assistance based on the types of health services, counseling, or referrals they offer.

Under this act, the US would not be able to impose restrictions on foreign organizations that would be unconstitutional if applied to US organizations. Lowey reintroduced this bill in 2011 and 2012.
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