Helms amendment blocks aid to African women

This week, the White House hosted a summit of African leaders focused on “Investing in the Next Generation.” The summit was the latest in a series of steps by the Obama Administration to strengthen ties to Africa and discuss new ways to invest in the continent’s future. Surely, all of our best development strategies should have been on the table. But there was conspicuous silence on one essential development tool: family planning and sexual and reproductive health.

There is no doubt that programs to protect the reproductive rights of women and girls are some of the most effective and cost-efficient development interventions in our arsenal. Just last week,  a leading group of economists estimated that providing universal access to sexual and reproductive health could provide a staggering benefit of up to $150 for every dollar invested. This is by far the highest return on investment of any of the hundreds of development interventions analyzed by the group.

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To help secure Africa’s bright future, President Obama must take strong action to protect reproductive rights for women in the developing world. There are 222 million women in developing nations who have an unmet need for modern contraception, 53 million of them in sub-Saharan Africa. And one-third of girls in the countries represented at the summit are married before age 18—putting them at particularly high risk for life-threatening early pregnancies, and serious injury and death from unsafe abortions.

The Obama administration should fully support a $1 billion commitment for contraceptive funding, which represents the United States’ fair share to make family planning available to all women who want to prevent pregnancy but lack modern contraception. And it should correct, within the limits of the law, policies that unnecessarily restrict access to life-saving abortions for women in the developing world.

More than 40 years since the Roe v. Wade decision, we have a long way to go toward ensuring this access for all women. In 1973, North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms amended the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act to prohibit U.S. government funds from being used for abortions conducted as “a method of family planning.” The Roe decision had just been handed down in the Supreme Court, and American women were finally able to access safe, legal abortions.

Unfortunately, women overseas weren’t so lucky.

For 40 years, the Helms amendment has been applied as a blanket restriction on the use of U.S. funds to pay for abortions.  Since its passage, policymakers have gone beyond the letter of the law, barring foreign assistance dollars from paying for abortion services even under the direst circumstances—cases that have nothing to do with family planning—cases where women have suffered rape or incest or whose pregnancies put their lives in danger.

By barring our foreign assistance dollars from paying for abortion services under any circumstances, we’ve created a chilling and unequal standard of care for women abroad.

The Obama administration should take steps to address this glaring inequity. As an immediate first step, PAI and other advocates have focused on what the President can and  should do right now: instruct  U.S. overseas agencies that women who become pregnant because of rape or incest, or whose lives are in danger because of pregnancy, deserve the full range of care.

Redefining the Helms amendment is about access to safe treatment for survivors of sexual violence, and for women whose lives are in danger during pregnancy. Most Americans—even conservative members of Congress—accept the rights of women to receive abortions in these exceptional cases. The current interpretation of the Helms amendment is not only inconsistent with U.S. policy; it is a violation of women’s human rights that hurts the most vulnerable.

The president can correct the misinterpretation of the Helms amendment immediately and without congressional approval. It’s time to fix this broken policy and end a forty-year injustice.

Ehlers is CEO of international reproductive rights group Population Action International (PAI).

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