08/06/2014 12:33 pm ET Updated Oct 06, 2014

Allow U.S. Foreign Aid to Do Its Job

This week, heads of state and ministers from across Africa are gathering in Washington, D.C. to discuss, among other things, trade, food security, peace, and health. One of the many pressing issues missing from the agenda is access to safe, life-saving abortion care.

Action is critical now because the Obama administration, like its predecessors, has misinterpreted the Helms amendment as an absolute ban on U.S. funding for abortion care overseas. For the past forty-one years, the Helms amendment has even been wrongly used to justify restrictions on speaking about abortion and has put safe abortion care out-of-reach, even in countries where it is legal.

The actual language of the decades-old Helms amendment forbids the U.S. to "pay for the performance of abortion as a method of family planning." Common sense, and listening to the stories of women, tells us that abortion is not "a method of family planning" in cases of rape, incest, or to save a life. Continued misinterpretation of this misguided policy denies women and girls access to the life-saving care they need and seek.

Executive action by President Obama would set the record straight and send a critical message to leaders in Africa and around the world: that where abortion is legal, women and girls must have access to safe, voluntary abortion care, and that the United States respects these rights through its own foreign assistance.

The distortion of U.S. law falls particularly harshly on the most vulnerable--girls. For adolescent girls in low and middle income countries, pregnancy and childbirth are the leading causes of death. Save the Children reports that in some countries, more than 80% of war rape victims are under 18.

With one stroke of a presidential pen, or by simply picking up the phone, President Obama could greatly better the circumstances for women and girls raped in conflict and crisis situations by allowing them access to safe, voluntary abortion care. All the president needs to do is take executive action clarifying that abortion in cases of rape, incest, and life endangerment are not "family planning" as defined by the Helms amendment. It is the legal and moral thing to do, it has the support of the American people, and it would better the lives of millions of women and girls.

There is a clear need for U.S. leadership in clarifying Helms. There is also clear support. A January 2014 poll by Lake Research Partners shows that the majority of Americans -- 57 percent -- agree that President Obama should issue an executive order to allow U.S. foreign assistance to support comprehensive reproductive health care - including access to safe abortion services -- in the cases of rape, incest, and life endangerment. And still, women and girls wait.

The Obama administration has committed to preventing gender-based violence and responding to women and girls who experience sexual assault and other violence in conflict and disaster emergencies around the world. Allowing U.S. foreign aid to be used to provide life-saving health services that include safe abortion care is critical to achieving a comprehensive and humanitarian response. Clarification of U.S. law and correct interpretation of the Helms amendment is an important first step to ensure a comprehensive and compassionate U.S. response to sexual violence globally.

Make no mistake -- we must eliminate the Helms amendment altogether. But until that happens, the very least we should do is eliminate confusion and properly implement the amendment. Ultimately, politicians must stop hiding behind erroneous assumptions about what U.S. voters support and that U.S. funding for abortions overseas is "untouchable." We must stop touting restrictions on the use of public funding for abortion care as conventional wisdom. They are not. These restrictions do nothing to advance social good, and disproportionately threaten the lives of the young, the poor, and the most marginalized.

In his State of the Union earlier this year, President Obama made it clear he will utilize executive action wherever necessary and when Congressional action is not needed. It is time we acknowledge both the need and support for executive action. It is time the U.S. stops turning its back on women and girls.

Deb Hauser is the President and Executive Director of Advocates for Youth, a national nonprofit that champions programs and policies that help young people make informed and responsible decisions about their sexual health. Advocates' Youth Activist Network stands 75,000 strong on campuses and countries across the globe.

Serra Sippel is the President of the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE), a U.S.-based non-governmental organization whose mission is to promote the sexual and reproductive health and human rights of women and girls globally by shaping the development and implementation of U.S. policies.