Globally, up to one out of every three women will experience physical and/or sexual violence in her lifetime. Gender-based violence (GBV)—which includes sexual violence—is an issue worldwide, and during armed conflicts or humanitarian crises the risks to women and girls are often heightened. Although survivors of sexual violence are not exclusively female, rape and other types of sexual violence predominantly affect women and girls. Rape is frequently used as a form of torture and as a weapon of war, and often results in unwanted pregnancy. Despite this commonly cited fact, women who become pregnant as a result of rape are often unable to access the care that they need because of U.S. legislative barriers to safe abortion, namely the Helms Amendment.
Introduced by the late Senator Jesse Helms and enacted in 1973, the Helms Amendment provides 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.” Although the amendment does not specifically define the meaning of “family planning,” every U.S. Administration, including President Obama’s, has applied this restriction even to cases of rape, incest, and life endangerment. This interpretation of the amendment is contrary to the opinion of international and medical authorities, who view abortion access as an integral aspect of a comprehensive response for rape survivors. It is also contrary to the amendment’s domestic equivalent, the Hyde Amendment, which withholds federal Medicaid funding from abortion except in circumstances such as rape, incest, and life endangerment.
The lack of clarity around “Helms” has dire consequences for millions of women and girls across the world. The U.S. is one of the largest donors of assistance to women’s health programs, yet this prohibition of federal funds stands as a glaring example of how U.S. programs fail women and girls by drastically restricting access to safe abortion services all over the world. Restricting access to safe abortion forces women and girls to resort to clandestine and often unsafe services. When, according to the Center for Health and Gender Equity, “47,000 women die from unsafe abortions every year, and thousands more suffer from life-threatening injuries due to unsafe abortion procedures,” preventing non-governmental organizations, global institutions, and governments that have received U.S. funding from providing safe and legal abortion procedures and options in cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment is unacceptable.
On June 14th, we will have an opportunity to remind the Obama administration how it has failed women in this regard. Thousands of women’s rights advocates will gather in Washington, D.C. for the United State of Women Summit to mark the progress made by and for women on key issues they face domestically and internationally, and to discuss solutions to the challenges they still face. While there is certainly plenty to celebrate, the Obama Administration cannot take its victory lap quite yet while being complicit in placing restrictions on abortion access and care for rape survivors. Amnesty International USA, the Center for Health and Gender Equity, Reproaction, Catholics for Choice, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, and other advocates from across the country will be there to remind the Obama Administration that #HelmsHurts, and that #ItsOnHim to stand with women and girl survivors of rape during armed conflict.
We are urging President Obama to use his executive action to reinterpret and clarify the Helms Amendment while he’s still in office to ensure access to safe abortion in cases of rape, incest, and life endangerment. With a stroke of his pen, President Obama can eliminate barriers and ensure that the U.S. is a leader in providing comprehensive, post-rape care, including safe abortion services, to survivors of sexual violence in conflict.
TAKE ACTION NOW: Stand Up for Women and Girls Raped in Conflict
JOIN US IF YOU’RE IN WASHINGTON, DC OR ATTENDING THE SUMMIT