WASHINGTON -- On International Women's Day, reproductive rights advocates sharply criticized President Barack Obama for failing to reverse a U.S. policy that blocks abortion care for women raped in conflict.
“We know the president understands that women are being raped in conflict, he’s spoken publicly about it five times in the last year and a half,” said Serra Sippel, president of the reproductive rights group Center for Health and Gender Equity. “I do not understand why he would isolate himself on the issue of abortion access in post-rape care -- when there is so much support."
The policy at issue is the Helms Amendment -- a 1973 law that prevents U.S. foreign aid money from providing abortion "as a method of family planning." Every White House including the current one has applied that prohibition even to cases of rape, incest and life of the mother, which legal experts say is a gross misinterpretation of the policy. A Nigerian schoolgirl who was kidnapped and raped by the extremist group Boko Haram and needs an abortion, for instance, would not be using the procedure as a "family planning" method -- but humanitarian aid organizations that receive U.S. funding are still discouraged from offering her the option to end her pregnancy.
Because the U.S. is the largest donor to women's health in the world, the Helms Amendment has a chilling effect on safe and legal abortion care for millions of women raped in conflict zones, developing countries and humanitarian crises. The lack of abortion access pushes these women to seek unsafe abortions, which are a leading cause of maternal mortality around the globe. An estimated 45,000 women die from back-alley procedures each year -- a staggering number that could be significantly reduced by U.S. support for comprehensive post-rape care.
There is growing pressure on the White House to change the policy. It wouldn't require an act of Congress -- all Obama would need to do is issue an executive order declaring that his administration interprets the Helms Amendment to have exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother. Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both said they would change the policy if they were elected, and 109 U.S. senators and representatives have written letters to the president urging him to take action.
Obama would also have the support of the public in making such a move. Sippel's group, CHANGE, released a new poll on Tuesday that shows a majority -- 55 percent of voters -- favor allowing U.S. foreign aid money to provide safe abortions for women raped in conflict, while 39 percent oppose it. The nationwide survey, conducted in February by the Democratic pollster Lake Research Partners, found that support for changing the Helms Amendment grows stronger after respondents read that terrorist groups like Boko Haram and the Islamic State are increasingly using rape and kidnapping as a tool of war. Fifty-nine percent of voters who received that information said they favor allowing U.S. foreign assistance for safe abortion care in those circumstances, and only 32 percent oppose it.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment. But despite Obama's silence on the issue, reproductive rights advocates are not giving up hope that this administration will address the policy before elections in November.
"On today of all days, International Women’s Day, one must ask: Mr. President, what are you waiting for?” Sippel said.