For years, I’ve served as a volunteer patient greeter outside of women’s health clinics, first in Falls Church, Virginia, and now in Portland, Maine. At both clinics there is only one day each week when a doctor who performs abortions is present, and on those days a throng of protesters gathers outside, holding gruesome signs and shouting at women and their partners as they enter the clinic. Many of these women are only stopping in to pick up that month’s supply of birth control pills or get their annual Pap test. Others, of course, are there to terminate their pregnancies.
I have seen patients break down in tears and turn back at the corner because they were too intimidated by the noisy protesters to proceed through the gauntlet to reach the door. Of course, that’s what volunteer greeters are there for. We shield patients from the cameras trained on them (the protesters take footage that later appears on their Facebook pages), calmly speak words of encouragement, and walk with them through the chaos so that they can enter the clinic as comfortably as possible.
That this circus exists each week is a shock to many pedestrians, who often stop to ask us greeters questions. It is difficult for many people to understand why anyone would have such strong convictions about what a stranger should do with her own body. Heck, it’s difficult for me to understand, even after all these years observing the troubling evidence.
While abortion in the United States is a hotly contested issue in politics, it is supported by a majority of voters and is constitutionally protected at the federal level (at least for now). The same cannot be said for many countries in the developing world, where the majority of abortions performed are illegal or self-induced, and therefore very unsafe.
Adding to the difficulty of receiving safe abortion care in the developing world is the fact that since 1973, U.S. foreign aid has been banned from funding “abortion as a method of family planning, ” even in countries where abortion is legal. The law as it’s written is harmful enough, but its strict interpretation as an outright ban is even worse. The law does not ban abortion in cases of rape, incest, or threat to the woman’s health, but has been interpreted for over 40 years as though it does.
Fortunately, this terrible law, introduced by a terribly misogynistic man, Sen. Jesse Helms, can be fixed without the help of Congress—the president (this one or the next) can simply clarify what the law already says. Armed with this fact, Population Connection and its sister organization, Population Connection Action Fund, have begun a campaign to reinterpret and eventually repeal the Helms amendment. We have been collecting signatures and sending petitions to President Obama for over a year already, and, with the help of a media and campaign consultant, will be ramping up our activity in the coming months.
The stories you’ll find inside this issue of Population Connection magazine will illuminate just how harmful the Helms amendment has been for women around the world, and how clarifying its intent will help women everywhere.