More than two dozen faith leaders are pressuring President Obama to ensure that U.S. foreign policy doesn’t prevent women around the globe from accessing safe and legal abortion — particularly in the extreme cases that are typically exempted even under harsh abortion bans. The religious figures say that maintaining women’s access to safe abortion care in cases of rape, incest, and life endangerment is a “moral imperative.”
The leaders of groups like the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, the Interfaith Alliance, the United Church of Christ, the National Coalition of American Nuns, the Methodist Federation for Social Action, and the National Council of Jewish Women have signed onto a letter asking the president to clarify his current policy related to foreign aid. They point out that confusion surrounding the existing law is denying rape victims the access to the health care they need.
“Although we come from different religious traditions, we are united in our belief that women and girls who face sexual violence and rape deserve meaningful access to the full range of reproductive healthcare options, including safe abortion,” the faith leaders write.
Right now, the Helms Amendment prohibits federal assistance from funding abortion services abroad. Helms technically has exceptions for women who need abortion care as a result of rape, incest, or life-threatening health issues — but that’s not actually how it ends up working in practice. Health workers are confused about what exactly the policy requires, and they’re also afraid of breaking the law and losing all their funding. That’s essentially resulted in a total ban on abortion services, and a gag order on any medical information related to ending a pregnancy.
The Helms Amendment doesn’t just prevent organizations from providing reproductive health care. It also means that the NGOs receiving U.S. aid are refusing to provide abortion referrals for women who come to them seeking information about ending a pregnancy. They’re refraining from providing any information about safe abortion on their websites. And they’re often wary to partner with other nonprofit organizations that are more open about their support for abortion rights.
Considering the fact that more than 20 million women around the globe resort to dangerous abortion options because they can’t access a safe and legal procedure, those dynamics have serious consequences.
“We believe that it is unacceptable — and in fact immoral — for our nation to continue to apply the Helms amendment incorrectly,” the open letter to President Obama states. “While ultimately we seek elimination of this law, at a minimum the executive branch of the U.S. government should clarify existing law so that in the cases of rape, incest and life endangerment, U.S. foreign assistance is allowed to support abortion access.”
The faith groups’ activism falls in line with a broader global push to save women’s lives by improving access to abortion services. In March, public health and human rights leaders from over 30 countries released a new declaration calling for better policies to prevent unsafe abortions, which kill about one woman every eight minutes. That coalition is also trying to pressure the U.S. government to implement Helms correctly. And some lawmakers here at home are currently fighting to increase access to legal abortion for Peace Corps volunteers serving abroad.
Although many Americans likely associate religious groups with a fierce opposition to abortion, the majority of them don’t actually support overturning Roe v. Wade. And many people of faith have been firmly committed to preventing women from dying from unsafe abortions for decades. Before abortion was legalized in this country, a group of 1400 religious leaders formed the “Clergy Consultation Service” to help refer women to safe abortion options, believing it was their ethical responsibility to help women avoid medically risky situations.
Now, some faith leaders are actively working to change the perception that women’s health is always in conflict with religion. The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), one of the groups that signed onto the new letter, recently launched a campaign to encourage people of faith to speak up for reproductive rights. “For too long, the extreme Religious Right has dominated the public conversation about religion and sexuality,” RCRC’s president, Rev. Harry Knox, told ThinkProgress at the time.