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President Obama: Ensure U.S. foreign assistance supports safe abortion care

Pop Quiz:  What U.S. President refused to use foreign-assistance funds to cover any abortion services overseas—even in the case of rape, incest, or a life-threatening pregnancy?  Is it:

A)     President George H.W. Bush

B)     President Bill Clinton

C)     President George W. Bush

D)     President Barack Obama

E)      All of the above

The answer—perhaps surprisingly—is E.

Despite the fact that access to safe abortion services is a matter of life or death in many parts of the developing world—21.6 million women experience an unsafe abortion each year, leading to tens of thousands of deaths—President Obama, like so many presidents before him, refuses to allow any U.S. foreign-assistance to support safe abortion care for survivors of rape or incest, even in life-threatening situations and in countries where abortions are permitted by law.

It is true that all presidential administrations since 1973 have been constrained by the restriction on abortion-related funding overseas known as the Helms Amendment. But that policy plainly states that foreign-assistance funds may be used to cover an abortion obtained for reasons other than as “a method of family planning.”

When a woman seeks to end a pregnancy resulting from rape, or one that threatens her life, it’s clearly not “a method of family planning.” Even staunchly anti-abortion President George W. Bush recognized this in a Presidential Memorandum explicitly saying so.

Nevertheless, the Obama administration continues to implement the policy incorrectly, as though it were a complete ban.

In passing its most recent funding bill last month, Congress demonstrated bipartisan support for women’s health and lives by finally allowing Peace Corps Volunteers the same limited health care coverage for abortion services that other federal employees receive in cases of rape, incest, and life endangerment. A New York Timeseditorial commended Congress for lifting the coverage ban for Peace Corps Volunteers, and called on President Obama to “follow up on this laudable change” by implementing the Helms Amendment to allow U.S. foreign assistance to support safe abortion services under the same limited circumstances.

The Obama administration must recognize the harm that is being inflicted upon countless women when U.S. foreign-assistance organizations are prohibited from providing critical services and resources. With human rights advocates imploring the administration to act on this violation of women’s human rights, why has the Obama Administration—a strong supporter of women’s rights—been so slow to fix the problem? 

Perhaps the most persuasive words urging the President to act now come from the President himself.  Within days of taking office in January 2009, President Obama rescinded a Reagan-era policy (known as the Mexico City Policy or the Global Gag Rule) prohibiting foreign community groups from discussing or providing safe abortion services.  At the time, Obama said:

It is clear that the provisions of the Mexico City Policy are unnecessarily broad and unwarranted under current law, and for the past eight years, they have undermined efforts to promote safe and effective voluntary family planning in developing countries. For these reasons, it is right for us to rescind this policy and restore critical efforts to protect and empower women and promote global economic development.

Today, Obama confronts another policy that is equally restrictive and harmful for women.  We can only hope that he will heed his own words and end the self-imposed funding ban on safe abortion care in cases of rape, incest, and life-endangerment. 

Far too many women have been hurt, or even died, because of their inability to get the safe and legal care they needed. It’s time to finally implement the Helms Amendment as it was written. Obama and Congress worked together to expand critical coverage for Peace Corps Volunteers. It’s time they do the same for women around the world. 

Schvey is senior policy counsel and manager of Projects and Operations at the Center for Reproductive Rights.

Tags Barack Obama Bill Clinton
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