Time for executive action to protect reproductive rights

With Republicans gaining control of both chambers, it’s no secret that the 114th Congress is going to be hostile to reproductive rights.

In just the first week, anti-choice politicians introduced six bills restricting abortion access, and international family planning programs are also expected to be targets of attack in the coming months.

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However, there’s one thing President Obama can do to strengthen reproductive rights—and his own legacy—without Congressional approval:  allow funding of safe abortion care for women overseas who are pregnant as a result of rape or incest, or whose pregnancy threatens their lives.

The president can make this happen by reinterpreting the Helms Amendment, a 41-year-old restriction on foreign aid first introduced by the late Sen. Jesse Helms. Though the amendment officially prohibits the use of United States funding for the performance of abortions “as a method of family planning,” it has been incorrectly implemented for years as a complete funding ban on all abortion-related services without exception.

Obama has the power to change this by instructing USAID and the State Department to allow abortion services in the cases of rape, incest, and life endangerment.  And for a president who has long been a supporter of women’s rights, it seems like it should be a no-brainer.

For starters, each year, 47,000 women around the world die from complications of unsafe abortions, and millions more face debilitating injuries. The Helms Amendment prevents the United States from adequately addressing this issue by prohibiting our foreign assistance programs from providing a full range of comprehensive, quality reproductive health services.

Second, in this time of ongoing conflict around the globe, rape is too often used as a weapon of war.  Survivors face many challenges to accessing the post-rape care they need including abortion services.  The U.S. government should not be yet another obstacle.

Third, reinterpreting the Helms Amendment would put it in line with many other federal laws and policies that deal with abortion. Though federal funding for abortion services is highly restricted, most laws and policies include three standard, common-sense exceptions to allow for abortions in the case of rape, incest or life endangerment. These exceptions have been included in legislative proposals coming from members on both sides of the aisle, and there have been a number of instances in which the exceptions have been attached to other long-standing abortion funding laws and policies.

In 2013, Congress passed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization act extending abortion coverage to women in the U.S. military under these narrow circumstances. And at the end of last year, the same exceptions were granted to Peace Corps volunteers. U.S. government employees, Medicaid beneficiaries, and Native American women also all receive the same exceptions.

As it stands, women in developing countries are one of the only groups denied funding for abortion in the case of a pregnancy due to rape or incest, or a pregnancy that threatens a woman’s life.

It’s time for this dangerous inconsistency to end. On July 31, PAI launched a public campaign calling on the President Obama to reinterpret the Helms Amendment. In early September, 80 diverse health and human rights organizations sent a letter to the president with the same request.

With the last mid-term election of his presidency behind him, President Obama has shown a willingness to shake things up. Since July 31, he has taken executive action in many other areas, issuing 14 executive orders and 18 presidential memoranda on topics ranging from immigration to sanctions on North Korea to admission of refugees to the U.S. to an additional day of vacation for federal employees. He has also moved unilaterally to protect Internet neutrality and combat climate change.

But for women overseas dealing with unwanted pregnancies due to rape, including those raped in conflict, or pregnancies that threaten their lives, it has been 169 days of inaction.

President Obama, women around the world need you to stand with them. There’s no reason to wait even one more day.

Ehlers is CEO of Population Action International.

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