The Feminist Majority and over 70 other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) released a letter to President Obama yesterday that calls on him to reinterpret the Helms Amendment and meet with the people running women’s health programs in Africa on an upcoming trip to the continent.
Currently, the Helms Amendment is wrongly interpreted as an all-out ban on abortion funding. Because of this interpretation, organizations cannot use foreign assistance to fund abortion as a method of family planning – and abortion in the case of rape, life endangerment, and incest is also prohibited. The Obama administration has the power to reinterpret the extremely broad amendment, but has not since he took office.
“Ultimately we want to see the Helms Amendment repealed, but that would take an act of Congress,” said Center for Health and Gender Equity President Serra Sippel. “We don’t need an act of Congress to implement the Helms Amendment correctly. This is something the President can do now.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 21.6 million women experience an unsafe abortion worldwide each year. Deaths due to unsafe abortions are close to 13 percent of all maternal deaths.
“Abortions in the cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment should not be considered abortions ‘as a method of family planning’ under any reasonable definition,” they= coalition stated in their letter to the President. “This issue is urgent because women are dying. Unsafe abortion is a key driver of maternal mortality, and Kenya and Ethiopia are among the 24 USAID priority countries where 70 percent of maternal deaths worldwide occur.”
Faith leaders are also on board. The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC) stated they want “swift executive action” on the Helms Amendment, saying further that it is too strict of an interpretation. They call on Obama to provide compassionate care overseas. “We are here today to not only say that this interpretation is wrong,” Reverend Harry Knox, president of the RCRC, said in a press conference earlier this summer, “it is morally bankrupt.”
President Obama will be visiting Kenya and Ethiopia to speak at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, but the coalition urges him to do more. “We request that you meet with the U.S. government’s partners who are implementing health and gender-based violence programs on the ground,” the letter reads. The coalition wants the President to understand the health needs to Kenyan and Ethiopian women in order to implement a solution.
A plethora of groups have been pushing to change the interpretation of the amendment for years; most recently, Catholics for Choice and the Center for Health and Gender Equity urged the President to do so in order to provide comprehensive care to the Nigerian victims of Boko Haram, and last winter over 20 organizations gathered outside of the White House in solidarity with survivors of rape in war, most of whom lack access to abortion care due to Helms.
Media Resources: Center for Health and Gender Equity 07/22/15; Buzzfeed 06/04/15; World Health Organization 2015; Feminist Newswire 12/10/14, 6/8/15