Faith leaders are calling on President Barack Obama to issue an executive order allowing the United States to fund access to safe abortions for women and girls raped in foreign conflict zones, especially those forcibly impregnated by terrorist groups such as ISIS and Boko Haram.
On Thursday, a collection of Christian, Jewish, Muslim and other faith leaders gathered with secular reproductive justice advocates in Washington, D.C. for a “Faith Leaders’ Summit.” The summit was convened to discuss the Helms Amendment, an addition to the Foreign Assistance Act enacted in 1973 that states, “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.” Historically, this has been interpreted to mean that the U.S. government should avoid apportioning any public money for abortions when funding aid in other countries.
But in a press conference at St. John’s Church near the White House yesterday afternoon, religious leaders argued that women who have survived rape in war-torn areas and want to terminate their pregnancies do not fall under the category of “family planning.” As such, they argued, President Obama should take executive action to allow federally funded relief programs to offer abortion services.
“In cases of rape or incest, or when the life of a woman is at risk, abortion is clearly not family planning,” Rev. Harry Knox, head of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, said. “Despite that clear distinction, administration after administration has incorrectly interpreted Helms to be a complete ban on abortion. We’re here to say that not only is this interpretation wrong, it is morally bankrupt.”
“Our faiths demand that we use our voices to insist that President Obama take executive action now,” he added.
The gathering sheds light on the growing issue of women and girls who are raped by violent extremist groups — particularly Boko Haram in Africa and ISIS in the Middle East. Women who have escaped from both groups describe forced marriages and systematic rape at the hands of their captors, resulting in hundreds of pregnancies. This includes the harrowing example of a nine-year-old Yazidi girl who was raped by 10 ISIS fighters, and who aid workers say will likely die if she is forced to deliver a baby. In Kurdish-ruled sections of Iraq, where many Yazidi refugees have fled but where abortion is illegal unless a woman’s life is in danger, local lawmakers are discussing options to legalize abortions for ISIS rape victims. But this sort of support is rare, and many are worried women will pursue other grim options in the meantime — usually unsafe, illegal abortions — sparking a need for access to higher-quality services.
“We are seeing a humanitarian disaster of untold [numbers of] women and girls who are escaping or returning from captivity from Boko Haram and ISIS,” Serra Sippel, president of the Center for Health and Gender Equity, said at the press conference. “Right now, President Obama is failing to stand with women and girls raped in conflict.”
“This administration continues to bend a knee to religious extremists,” added Sara Ratcliffe, Domestic Programs Director at Catholics for Choice.
The advocates said they were under no illusions about the uphill battle they faced. No president has interpreted the Helms Amendment in a way that allows funding for any abortions, and the issue is famously divisive among American lawmakers. Still, they noted that they were scheduled to officially meet with the White House later that day, and said they knew lawmakers who would back the president were he to issue an executive order. They also mentioned that they were already discussing outreach to 2016 presidential contenders about issue.
Knox also pointed out that, as people of faith, the issue isn’t really about politics — it’s about doing what’s right.
“As faith leaders, it’s particularly important to call attention to what is really happening in the world and to offer practical solutions to that,” he said. “This is a matter is a matter of justice and compassion, and it’s our role to do that.”