Catholics for Choice in partnership with the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE) launched a campaign last week in response to more than 200 girls raped and impregnated by Boko Haram members, urging President Obama to reinterpret the Helms Amendment to include abortion care.
Over 400 women and children who were kidnapped by Boko Haram were returned earlier this year, many of whom are pregnant as the result of rape. Organizations hoping to aid these women are calling on President Obama to take executive action to correct a misinterpretation of the Helms Amendment that has prevented US foreign assistance in providing abortion care. The Helms Amendment currently prohibits the use of US funds to provide abortion as a “method of family planning,” but does allow funds to be used for abortion in cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment.
“The existing interpretation of the Helms policy has been so harshly implemented that it currently serves as a complete ban on support for any abortion care or counseling on options for a pregnancy,” said Sara Hutchinson Ratcliffe, domestic program director at Catholics for Choice, at a press conference on Friday. “It creates barriers that prevent women around the world from following their conscience and ties the hands of agencies receiving US aid from providing the care women need.”
Other organizations, including the Feminist Majority, have also called on the President to take action to correct the flawed interpretation of Helms. Last year, Rev. Harry Knox, CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, stated that the Helms Amendment, “… has been misused to deny compassionate abortion care to women and girls who face a pregnancy that results from rape.” He also said it was the United States’ “moral imperative” to provide abortion care.
While the Nigerian government has made abortion illegal except in the case of life endangerment, Nigerian officials signed the Maputo Protocol which demands “the right to abortion in cases of rape, incest, or where pregnancy would pose a danger to the woman’s physical health, mental health, or life.” Even so, there has not been U.S. pressure on the Nigerian government to act in accordance with the Maputo Protocol and allow for abortion in cases of rape.
Denial of safe abortion services to victims of rape can have devastating consequences. Bea Arthur, a therapist and activist who often works with victims of sexual violence, warns of the long-lasting effects that denying a victim of violence can have. “Telling someone they can’t have a choice extends that trauma and denies them their own humanity, integrity, and basic human self-respect,” she says. Studies also indicate that women who are impregnated as a result of rape and bear children are especially vulnerable to mental health issues such as depression and post-traumatic stress. There is also a strong likelihood of these women experiencing severe negative psychological consequences from facing stigma or isolation within their communities. Adolescents and very young victims are also at greater risk of death during pregnancy and childbirth.
Media Resources: GenderHealth.org Helms Amendment; MaputoProtocol.com 7/11/2013; NY Times 6/4/15; Catholics for Choice Press Release 6/4/15; Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice 12/9/14; Cosmopolitan Magazine 5/11/15; NCBI Report 4/8/15;