In today’s world there are few problems that can be solved with the stroke of a pen. But what if I told you that the next U.S. president could on day one—January 20, 2017—help tens of thousands of women and girls in the developing world with just one signature?
In 1973, Congress, in a backlash to the Roe v. Wade decision, passed a law limiting foreign assistance funding for safe abortion in the developing world. The key word is “limiting.” The law, known as the Helms amendment, bars funding for abortion “as a method of family planning.” This law never had any basis in good foreign or global health policy. Yet it’s still on the books, an offensive echo of our domestic abortion politics that is utterly divorced from the reality of vulnerable people’s lives.
The Helms amendment has been consistently misinterpreted to prevent U.S. funds from being used to provide safe abortions to the world’s poorest women even in the cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment—and despite whether local laws allow for those exceptions.
Unless and until a U.S. president picks up a pen to clarify this misconstrued policy, women and girls in conflict-ridden regions who have been raped and impregnated by monstrous men and terrorist groups, such as ISIS and Boko Haram, will continue to be denied access to vital abortion care.
America’s foreign policy, through the distortion of this law, is telling these traumatized survivors (some of whom are adolescents) that the U.S. government would rather they risk death, suffer unsafe abortions, or bear the pain of giving birth to their attackers’ babies than use funds to safely terminate pregnancies that are the result of horrific circumstances.
But, unfortunately, that’s not all. The misapplication of the Helms amendment also makes it difficult for U.S.-funded health organizations to help women and girls deal with the aftermath of unsafe abortions. Why, you ask? Because these organizations are barred from using foreign assistance funds to buy the tools and medications that could save women’s lives after botched abortions since those same tools and medications could be used to perform safe abortions. It makes no sense.
About 47,000 women die every year as a result of unsafe abortions. Thousands more are forced to continue pregnancies caused by rapists—strangers, soldiers, or relatives.
Can you imagine what this means for a girl in Syria or Iraq, where rape is being used as a weapon of war? Even if she manages to flee her crumbling, war-torn country for the relative safety of a refugee camp in neighboring Jordan or Lebanon, she may still have no choice but to risk her life giving birth to her rapist’s baby, all due to the mishandling of an outdated U.S. policy.
There is no one in the world who is more deserving of our country’s help than the woman who has escaped the clutches of a demented terrorist, the girl who has been married off to a man three times her age, or the girl whose uncle commits the crime of incest. America’s foreign policy should not be telling these women and girls, “You are on your own.” We should tell them, “We stand with you.”
Empowering women and providing the most vulnerable people around the world with access to comprehensive health services—including access to safe abortions—should be a proud cornerstone of American foreign policy and assistance. We’ll be ready with a pen to lend the new president on day one to make that a reality.