Death-dealing double standard of US policies toward women overseas

Women’s reproductive rights featured prominently in many midterm election campaigns; these issues will clearly be part of the landscape of American politics for decades to come.  Fortunately, American women enjoy certain basic protections of these rights, although the reality of exercising them is often difficult in this country.

Women and girls who live in countries that have restrictive abortion laws are far less likely than their American sisters to obtain safe abortion care.  Every year, tens of thousands of women and girls die needlessly and millions more are injured due to the complications of unsafe abortion. 

The reality for women in the countries where Ipas and Pathfinder work is that health facilities are few and far between, and death or serious injury is a more likely scenario when safe and legal care is not available. Frontline workers have the ability to make lifesaving abortion care services available to these women -- but are too often prevented from doing so.

Under a little known legal restriction on U.S. foreign aid -- led by the conservative Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) in 1973 -- funds cannot be used to “pay for the performance of abortion as a method of family planning…..” The language allows exceptions for rape, incest, and life endangerment – but this is not how the policy is implemented.  For over 40 years, the Helms Amendment has been applied as a complete ban on abortion care in U.S.-funded global health programs -- with no exceptions.  This means that Pathfinder and other U.S. government-funded agencies are unable to provide critical abortion care services to those at risk even under circumstances upheld by U.S. law and clearly allowable under the Helms Amendment.

The harmful impact of the Helms Amendment extends well beyond its stated purpose and undermines important objectives in U.S. foreign assistance, such as increasing access to family planning and reproductive health services, reducing maternal mortality, promoting democracy and defending human rights.

In addition to restricting the delivery of health services, this policy has been applied in a way that compels health care providers to censor free access to health information, which is a violation of human rights. For example, in Ethiopia, where abortion is permitted by law in cases of rape, incest, and fetal impairment, U.S. government-funded programs are not only unable to provide this legal service but are also banned from providing any other services in the same location where legal abortion services are being delivered by other providers.

The U.S. government does great good around the world with funding for family planning services in many countries, a basic component of foreign aid for nearly five decades, widely supported by the American public as shown in poll after poll. 

But that is not enough given the realities of women’s lives in the countries where we work.  Access to modern contraception, as well as safe, legal abortion, are essential to addressing the basic reproductive health needs of women in the developing world. 

With the stroke of a pen, President Obama can change the outcome for many of these women and start to reverse more than four decades of neglect of their basic human rights and harm to their health.  He can also bring U.S. foreign policy one step closer to the enlightened policies on access to safe abortion of other donor countries like Great Britain, France, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, and the Netherlands. 

This action is not only legal, but a clear moral imperative, consistent with the values of the vast majority of American voters who support abortion in cases of rape, incest, and danger to the woman’s life. 

It is time to end more than four decades of neglect and needless death. It is time for President Obama to take action.

Maguire is president and CEO of Ipas, and formerly director of the Office of Population at the U.S. Agency for International Development (1993-1999). Mane is president and CEO of Pathfinder International, and formerly deputy executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (2007-2011). Both private non-profit organizations train reproductive health providers in developing countries.