By Benjamin Goad - 12/11/13 03:27 PM EST
Reproductive and human rights advocates pressed President Obama Wednesday to issue an executive order clearing the path for U.S. foreign aid for post-rape care services – including abortions – in parts of the world reeling from crisis or conflict.
From the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo to the typhoon-ravaged Philippines, hundreds of thousands of women and girls are raped every year in places besieged by violence and natural disaster, according to estimates from the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE).
Federal law dating back to 1973 prohibits the use of U.S. funds to “pay for the performance of abortion as a method of family planning or to motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions.”
The language, called the Helms Amendment, after former Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), does not, however, bar the use of U.S. aid to pay for abortions in cases of rape, activists from CHANGE, the Global Fund for Women and Human Rights Watch contend.
The statute has blocked funding from going to those services, however, as part of American humanitarian efforts overseas, they said.
“This creates a barrier for care for women and girls in some of the most difficult settings,” CHANGE President Serra Sippel said during remarks Wednesday at The National Press Club.
Sippel said Obama could act unilaterally to clarify that funding could go toward those services.
“It does not require act of Congress,” she said. “We know that rape is not family planning.”
The group has initiated discussions with officials at the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and is requesting meetings with the White House to make the case for an executive order, Sippel said.
Proponents acknowledge the likelihood of some pushback from anti-abortion groups, but point to broad public support for abortion funding in cases of rape, incest or life endangerment.
They said that congressional Republicans would be reluctant to mount aggressive opposition to an order from Obama, particularly following a 2012 election cycle that saw some GOP candidates excoriated for their stated views on rape and pregnancy.
“This should be something he could do, I think, at a relatively small political cost,” said Liesl Gerntholtz, executive director of the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch.