07/28/2014 06:12 pm ET Updated Sep 27, 2014

The Helms Amendment Hurts Women and Undermines U.S. Development Efforts Around the World

In August, President Obama will welcome leaders from across the African continent to Washington, DC, for a three-day Africa Leaders Summit, the first such event of its kind to be hosted by the U.S., though China, Japan, India, and the EU have held similar summits with African heads of state. A main goal of the summit is to strengthen ties between the United States and Africa, and to "highlight the depth and breadth of the United States' commitment to the African continent."

Improving relations between the U.S. and foreign governments, including and especially those from Africa, is a highly laudable goal. But these conversations are undermined by a harmful U.S. policy that prevents women around the world from accessing abortion, under any circumstances. If the U.S. truly values empowerment and development, fixing the Helms Amendment should be on the agenda.

No woman or girl should be forced to carry her rapist's baby. And no woman should be turned away from the care she needs, especially when she faces a pregnancy that threatens her life. But that's exactly what happens all over the world under the Helms Amendment, which prohibits the use of U.S. foreign assistance funds for the performance of abortion "as a method of family planning."

For 40 years, the implementation of this policy has gone beyond what is required by law and has prohibited all abortions even in the cases of rape, incest or a life-endangering pregnancy. This restriction has prevented women in some of the poorest countries in the world from accessing vital, lifesaving health care they need -- services that are legal in their countries and the only barrier they face is U.S. policy. Getting rid of this harmful policy entirely would require Congress to act. But President Obama can take the first step in removing this unnecessary barrier to care for women who face these tragic circumstances.

The administration's incorrect interpretation of the Helms Amendment is especially disturbing considering that one in three women in the world will experience violence in her lifetime, many before the age of 18. In some countries that figure is as high as 70%. Rates of gender-based violence are especially high in areas of conflict and crisis, where rape is used as a tool of war, and in displaced communities such as refugee camps. Young women are particularly vulnerable to both violence and unintended pregnancy, which can force them to give up school or become mothers before they are ready -- many when they are still girls themselves. Young women also face increased risk of death and disability due to early pregnancy.

Consider the case of Ruth*, a young woman from Central Africa who sought support from a U.S.-funded gender-based violence project after being raped and becoming pregnant. She was provided with a rape kit containing emergency contraception, among other supplies, but she was already pregnant at the time of her visit. Employees at the NGO were forced to inform Ruth that their hands were tied: she would now face forced pregnancy, stigma in her community, and the physical, emotional and financial difficulties of continuing a pregnancy that is the result of rape.

Ruth is not alone. Boko Haram and Nigeria's stolen schoolgirls, yet to be returned home, have brought attention to the enormity of global figures around violence against women and girls. This reveals some of the contributing factors to why more than 20 million unsafe abortions take place every year worldwide, resulting in millions of injuries and 47,000 deaths annually. Many of the women behind these abysmal figures have stories similar to Ruth's. In my time as a Foreign Services Officer living in Africa, I met women facing the emotional trauma of pregnancies resulting from rape, and met many grandmothers and extended family members raising abandoned children born out of conflict. The current implementation of the Helms Amendment puts survivors of sexual violence in desperate situations, leaving them vulnerable to further injury and even death.

Planned Parenthood Global supports doctors, midwives, and community health workers around the world. Our partners serve on the front lines of the battle against unintended pregnancy and unsafe abortion, and they see firsthand the damaging effect of the Helms Amendment. Across Africa, abortion laws are slowly becoming less restrictive, but current U.S. policy is undermining the public health, government and civil society efforts in-country.

President Obama can -- and must -- fix the policy of turning women away in the extreme cases of life-endangering pregnancies or those resulting from rape. Until Congress does the right thing and overturns the harmful law in its entirety, he can take a first step to ensure that U.S. programs are part of the solution, not the problem. As President Obama looks toward the penultimate year of his second term, there's no better time for him to step forward and make this simple change to the Helms Amendment. Women's lives are on the line.

*Names have been changed.