Representatives from more than 20 organizations are rallying in front of the White House on Tuesday to pressure President Obama to ensure the full range of reproductive health services — including abortion — for women around the world who become pregnant from rape. The event emphasized the U.S. government’s imperative to “break barriers” to post-rape care in countries plagued by warfare.
Sexual assault in conflict zones has come under increasing scrutiny over the past few years, particularly after hundreds of Syrian refugees cited rape as one of the primary reasons they fled their country in 2013.
However, the president’s current approach to international aid prevents many of those sexual assault victims from receiving any information or assistance related to abortion. Reproductive rights advocates argue that the Obama administration’s narrow interpretation of the Helms Amendment — a decades-old policy that prohibits federal assistance from funding abortion services abroad — has essentially resulted in a “gag order” about medical information related to the procedure.
Even though Helms technically has exceptions for women who become pregnant as a result of rape or incest, they’re not necessarily utilized in practice. Health workers abroad are confused about what exactly they’re allowed to do under the policy, and they’re too concerned about breaking the law and losing all their funding. It’s easier to avoid abortion altogether.
That’s why a diverse coalition of groups is seeking to pressure President Obama to issue an executive action to clarify how health workers should interpret Helms. They’re not asking for the policy to be completely repealed yet; instead, they’re simply demanding that the White House enforce its exceptions accurately so that victims of rape aren’t denied access to reproductive health care.
Over the past year, groups like Planned Parenthood, Human Rights Watch, and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice have all grown more vocal about the need to reform Helms. They’ve penned letters to the White House about the issue, as well as published op-eds and blog posts on the issue. And in March, global health leaders called for clarification about Helm’s exceptions as the first step in preventing women from dying from unsafe abortions around the world.
“Groups from all over the world are gathering to make their voices heard so that we can finally open the doors to comprehensive health care for these women,” Serra Sippel, the president of the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE), said in a statement regarding Tuesday’s White House rally.
Multiple surveys have shown that Americans overwhelmingly support abortion access for rape victims, and many of them specifically favor enforcing the Helms Amendment the way it was written. According to a national poll conducted earlier this year by Lake Research Partners on behalf of CHANGE, nearly 60 percent of respondents agreed that President Obama “should issue an executive order to allow foreign assistance to support comprehensive health care, including safe abortions for women in the cases of rape, incest, and when a woman’s life is in danger.”
There have been other examples of progress in this area recently. Last year, Congress slightly loosened the abortion coverage ban for women serving in the military, so that female service members who have been raped can now use their insurance to end a pregnancy. Lawmakers have also recently advanced a measure to extend the same type of abortion coverage to Peace Corps volunteers who become pregnant from sexual assault.