By CHANGE President Serra Sippel
It’s distressing, but not surprising, that women’s health and rights in the U.S. are under attack. There have always been efforts by anti-choice advocates and policy makers to try to destroy women’s agency and our sexual and reproductive health care choices.
What may not be as well known is that these attacks extend beyond our U.S. borders.
As a leading donor for reproductive health services overseas, the U.S. government exports harmful policies through our foreign aid- policies that limit reproductive rights for women and girls outside the U.S.
One such policy that is particularly heinous is the Helms Amendment.
The Helms amendment is a decades-old provision in U.S. law that prohibits U.S. funding for abortion overseas as a “method of family planning.” The law does not prohibit U.S. support for abortion in the cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment.
Despite this distinction, no administration – not even the Obama administration – has ever implemented the law to help women and girls access abortion in the cases of the three exceptions.
Today marks the 42nd year this wrong-headed policy has been harming women and girls globally.
To be clear, the Helms amendment should be rescinded from U.S. law. But that would take an act of Congress and that will not happen anytime soon.
That is why U.S. and global advocates are calling on President Obama to use his executive authority to interpret Helms correctly and allow U.S. foreign aid to support abortion in cases of rape, incest, and life endangerment.
This is not a symbolic act or political gesture.
We know that in Nigeria, Iraq, and Syria, women and girls have been captured by terrorists who torture, rape, and impregnate them. These women and girls need access to safe abortion today.
But the U.S. foreign assistance we send to help these women and girls is prohibited from providing them with the care and services they need to terminate pregnancies.
No woman or girl who survives rape and finds herself pregnant should be told by the U.S. government that there’s nothing it can do to help – because that’s not true.
A sound legal interpretation of Helms, along with common sense and an understanding of the reality of the lives of women and girls, tells us that abortion is not “a method of family planning” when the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest, or when a woman’s life is in danger.
Continued misinterpretation of this misguided law denies women and girls – like those who have been captured and raped by ISIS and Boko Haram – access to the life-saving care they need and seek.
That’s why U.S. and global women’s health and rights advocates, human rights groups, faith-based organizations, a former USAID administrator, and two Nobel Peace Laureates, 81 members of the House of Representatives, and 28 U.S. Senators all have called on President Obama to take executive action to clarify Helms.
A January 2014 poll by Lake Research Partners shows that the majority of Americans – 57 percent – agree that President Obama should take executive action on the Helms Amendment.
U.S. voters want the president to act, and also women globally want him to act.
In July, 15 Kenyan NGOs sent President Obama a letter asking him to speak about the right to abortion for survivors of rape during his visit to Kenya. While the president spoke about rape as a weapon of war and the sexual violence women face – he was silent on the care women and girls need to restore their lives.
And this year, I had the incredible honor of working closely with Jaqueline Mutere, founder of Grace Agenda, a Nairobi-based organization that helps survivors of rape access social, legal, and health services.
Jaqueline has been outspoken about U.S. support for abortion for women and girls raped in conflict, calling on President Obama to support conflict intervention programs that include access to safe abortion.
Like the women and girls she serves, Jaqueline was raped during the outbreak of violence following the 2007 elections in Kenya. She became pregnant as a result of the rape and tried three times to access a safe abortion but was unable to do so. Her experience inspired her to found Grace Agenda.
At a summit with faith leaders this summer – held at St. John’s Church across from the White House (the President’s Church) – Jaqueline bravely shared her story.
“Access to comprehensive services – especially abortion as an option – is critical for women’s recovery,” said Jaqueline.
Advocates like Jaqueline, who know first-hand about the importance of access to safe abortion, have spoken out. I have accompanied advocates from Colombia, South Africa, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Kenya to the White House and Congressional offices to tell their stories, to speak their truth to power.
The New York Times has published four editorials calling on President Obama to take action on Helms. The Washington Post editorial board has called President Obama’s inaction on Helms “an inhumane policy.”
And while the President has personally spoken four times condemning rape used as weapon of war, he has yet to take meaningful action for the survivors.
We should all be outraged. Outraged that the U.S. government denies women and girls raped in conflict access to abortion. And outraged that the U.S. is exporting stigma abroad.
A woman who survives rape – and is impregnated by her rapist – has a fundamental human right to access safe abortion if she chooses. She deserves better from the U.S. government than, “sorry, we can’t help you.”
This is unacceptable. It’s unacceptable at home, it’s unacceptable abroad.
This is about her health and her rights. The time to act is now.
Featured Image: Jaqueline Mutere (from Grace Agenda in Kenya, African) in Washington, D.C. calling on President Obama to stand with women and girls raped in
conflict. Photo Credit: CHANGE