Religious Leaders Urge Obama To Fund Abortion For Women Raped In Conflict — But The Helms Amendment Stands In Their Way

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A coalition of faith leaders is shepherding the fight for access to abortion overseas, and the target is not foreign governments or religious institutions, but our leader right here at home. On Thursday, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice urged President Obama to take executive action expanding abortion rights to victims of sexual violence, who often lack resources through the Helms Amendment. The decades-long policy bars federal funding for abortion procedures overseas "as a method of family planning," and has been misinterpreted by USAID for over 40 years to deny these services to victims of rape in conflict.

"[The Helms Amendment] is currently being misinterpreted as a complete ban, even when a pregnancy is a result of rape or incest, or when a pregnancy is a threat to the life of a woman," the coalition states in its newly crafted resolution, delivered to the White House Thursday afternoon. "Our faith traditions compel us to speak out for social justice, to serve and support the marginalized members of our society and to ensure human rights protections for all."

The move comes just weeks after some 200 pregnant girls and women kidnapped by Boko Haram were rescued from captivity in northeast Nigeria. Catholic bishops in Nigeria openly denied abortions to the pregnant girls and women, offering instead to provide "rehabilitation" and reiterating that abortion was as grave a crime as sexual violence and warfare. Nigeria currently bans abortion in cases of rape, but allows the procedure for when a woman's life is at risk.

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Yet NGOs and other overseas groups that receive U.S. aid can't just pick up the slack and provide these health services for women and girls like those kidnapped by Boko Haram. With the Helms Amendment being used to bar funding in all cases of abortion, NGOs have their hands tied by bureaucratic red tape.

"Let’s be frank: the Helms Amendment is an affront to our values as Americans and as Catholics," said Sara Ratcliffe, program director of Catholics for Choice. "To let this policy continue is a disgrace to who we are — our principles should not allow the U.S. government to tell those in another country what they can and cannot do to help their citizens in need."

Ratcliffe, along with leaders from the Muslims for Progressive Values, Central Conference of American Rabbis and several Christian faiths, criticized Obama for his apparent support of girls and women in America, but lack of action when it comes to girls and women across the globe. Ratcliffe said Obama's administration caves to "religious extremists who want the ability to take U.S. federal dollars and still keep the 'right' to refuse to do what is required to care for those who need services around the world."

Ani Zonneveld of Muslims for Progressive Values added, "It is deplorable and morally reprehensible that in light of our government’s capacity to offer some respite and alleviation to the women and girls in Iraq and Syria they refuse to do so. It is time we hold our government accountable."

Earlier this year, members of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice met with White House officials to express their "moral outrage" over the far-reaching implementation of the Helms Amendment. In 2014, the coalition, in collaboration with the U.S.-based NGO Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE), also sent a letter to the president signed by 33 religious leaders and women’s advocates.

"President Obama has spoken compassionately about women and girls raped in war and conflict, but has failed to act on that compassion," the two groups said in their new resolution delivered Thursday.

Still, the Obama administration has kept the 42-year-old implementation of the Helms Amendment in place. However, the president has repealed the Mexico City Policy — also known as the "global gag rule" — a policy of the Reagan administration that disqualifies NGO from receiving federal funds for not only providing abortions, but for also providing any information or counseling on abortion. Historically, the global gag rule has been repealed by every Democratic president and affirmed by every Republican president since President Ronald Reagan.

The bans on foreign assistance for abortion care, particularly in cases of rape, have perpetuated the vast global inequality among women, reproductive health advocates say. According to CHANGE, an estimated 47,000 women die each year from an unsafe abortion procedure, though that number may be much higher.

In Nigeria alone, health officials recently said that more than 30,000 Nigerian women die each year from illegal abortions. The group Women on Waves, which provides abortion-inducing drugs to women across the globe, also claims that illegal abortion is one of the leading yet preventable causes of maternal death in Nigeria.

In areas that have endured prolonged conflict, sexual violence against girls and women is often used as a tool of war. A Human Rights Watch report released in April found that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has been carrying out systemic acts of rape among captured Yezidi women and girls, including girls as young as 12 years old. Some of the women and girls interviewed reported being raped by several ISIS members.

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Jaqueline Mutere, founder of Grace Agenda in Kenya and a survivor of rape, said on Thursday that women assaulted during conflict in many corners of the world have little to no access to post-rape care, including health services. After discovering she was pregnant from rape in 2007, Mutere tried to obtain a safe abortion three times before being forced to carry the pregnancy to term. “As President Obama and the American people support conflict intervention programs globally, let him act now with compassion to enable women in post rape situations to access holistic post rape care which includes access to safe abortion," Mutere said. “Access to safe abortion is as critical as the peace process in conflict resolution.”The White House has yet to respond to the faith leaders' resolution. But the faith leaders expect some answers from Obama, who is a Christian and often mentions his religious values. "Religious people are led by our faiths to love our neighbors," said the Rev. Harry Knox, leader of the RCRC. "Women and girls who have survived atrocities deserve access to comprehensive post-rape care, including access to compassionate abortion. That’s what loving your neighbor looks like in this case."

Images: Getty Images (2), Conway Strategic (1)