FAQ: How US Abortion Restrictions on Foreign Assistance, including the Global Gag Rule, Violate Women Rights & Human Rights

On January 23, 2017, his second day in office, President Trump issued an executive order reinstating the Global Gag Rule (“GGR” or “Gag Rule,” now termed “Protecting Life in Global Health Assistance”), restricting US funding for organizations that provide abortion services as a method of family planning. The GGR joins a multitude of other restrictions on family planning and abortion imposed on US foreign assistance that permit the US government to dictate the care provided to women around the world. This FAQ explores commonly asked questions about these policies—what they are, what they mean, and their impact is—including on women’s and human rights.

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Ninety humanitarian and human rights groups call on European Commission to provide abortion services to women and girls in war zones

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE -November 23, 2017

[NEW YORK and GOMA]– On Saturday, the world celebrates the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. In anticipation of this day, a global coalition of ninety civil society organizations calls on the European Commission to ensure that abortion, a medical procedure, is included in the medical care offered to women and girls, particularly in areas where rape is used as a weapon of war. 

Global Justice Center’s Statement on the Operation to Liberate Mosul


[NEW YORK, NY] - As the operation to liberate Mosul begins, all coalition actors should ensure that they uphold their obligations under international law to protect civilians and minimize the harm caused to them. Iraq is a party to the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions and the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. These treaties define how Iraqi forces, including the Peshmerga, must carry out military operations.

Growing International Consensus that US Must Lift Abortion Ban

by Liz Olson

Denying women raped in war zones access to abortions is a violation of their fundamental human rights ­­-- yet the US continues to do so in the face of growing international criticism. Under the Geneva Conventions, women raped in war zones fall under the category of the “wounded and sick,” meaning that they are entitled to all necessary medical care to treat their condition. Failing to provide abortion access to these women not only violates their rights under International Humanitarian Law, it subjects them to further trauma, as they are again stripped of control over their bodies.  These women, forced to carry the children of their rapists, face additional pain, suffering, and stigma.

The Helms Amendment, enacted in 1973, prohibits US humanitarian assistance funds from being used to pay for abortions “as a method of family planning.” Since then, the law has been incorrectly interpreted as a blanket ban on abortion services, even in cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment.  By denying women and girls raped in war zones access to this necessary medical procedure, the US is violating the “principle of adverse distinction” under the Geneva Conventions, which stipulates that IHL cannot be implemented in ways that are less favorable for women than for men. Men and women wounded in war must be provided with all necessary forms of medical care. For women raped in was zones, this includes access to abortion services.

Access to abortion service has been increasingly recognized by the international community as a right under humanitarian law, and the US ban has come under growing criticism. The United Nations, United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands and the European Union have all come out in strong support of providing safe abortion access to women raped in conflict zones, and it is time for the US to follow suit.

Commemorating the Srebrenica Massacre

Last year, when commemorating the July 11, 1995 commencement of hostilities in Srebrenica, Bosnia & Herzegovina that ended in the deaths of 8,000 men, the White House wrote that, “only by holding the perpetrators of the genocide to account can we offer some measure of justice to help heal their loved ones.” Political condemnation is, in other words, not enough; criminal prosecution should follow such remarks. Today, the United States and other international actors who have acknowledged the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s (“ISIS”) genocidal acts must honor the legacy of the International Criminal Tribunal in Yugoslavia (“ICTY”) and follow international humanitarian law by prosecuting ISIS fighters for genocide.

The 11-day massacre in Srebrenica is often noted – and rightfully so – for the horrific killings of thousands of Muslim Bosniaks, most of whom were unarmed civilians, by the Bosnian Serb Army of Republika Srpska (“Bosnian Serb Army”). The murders, carried out under the pretense of impunity, specifically targeted a religious subpopulation – a violation, as noted by the ICTY, of article II of the Geneva Conventions.

Srebrenica’s men were killed whilst Srebrenica’s women were sexually assaulted and raped. By raping and sexually mutilating the wives and daughters of the men they had just murdered, the Bosnian Serb Army aimed to comprehensively “assert [its] superiority and victory over the Muslims.” As the landmark trial of Akayesu - a man involved in the 1994 Rwandan genocide - established, such actions are not separate to, but rather components of, genocide.

ISIS’s current actions in Iraq and Syria are remarkably similar to those in Srebrenica 21 years ago: ISIS fighters specifically target religious and ethnic minorites like the Yazidis – as acknowledged by US Secretary of State John Kerry - and they systematically rape and sexually enslave Yazidi women. As in Yugoslavia in the 1990’s, where rape served as a military tactic intended to “transmit a new ethnic identity to the child,” today’s rape of minority populations by ISIS serves as a central tenet of the group’s military quest for regional domination.

Such actions are not only morally repugnant but also criminal and prosecutable under international humanitarian law. The convictions of Bosnian Serbs for genocidal actions in Srebrenica should not exist in a temporal vacuum; they entered humanitarian law as precedence for the future prosecution of genocide, thereby providing justice to victims at the timeand offering legal tools for future genocide prosecutions elsewhere.

Today, the international community should honor the memory of those killed and raped in Srebrenica and the lessons learned from that conflict by prosecuting ISIS fighters for genocide. By doing so, the international community will acknowledge its responsibility to protect victims of genocide, recognize the legal precedents established in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, deter future fighters from joining the organization’s ranks, and provide justice to ISIS’s victims.

Thinking of Yazidi Women and Girls on the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict

On June 19, as the international community observes the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, rape remains a central reality of war for women and girls around the world.

War rape is both a historical and contemporary part of war: it is not simply a byproduct of fighting but often serves as a central military tactic. In Yugoslavia in the 1990s, “the systematic rape of women … [was] in some cases intended to transmit a new ethnic identity to the child.” Yugoslav women were “often […] interned until it was too late for them to undergo an abortion,” thereby ensuring the creation of a new ethnic reality.

Today, in ISIS controlled territories, ISIS leaders “elevate and celebrate each sexual assault as spiritually beneficial, even virtuous.” Multiple accounts by former ISIS captives detail month-long rapes, severe physical and mental trauma, and forced pregnancies.

War rape thus serves to traumatize and create fear in the short term and to extend genocidal effects by producing new ethnic identities in the long term.

Yet despite the horrific psychological and biological results of war rape the United States’ Helms Amendment precludes any US humanitarian aid from being used for abortion services.

Denying abortions to war rape victims endangers innocent women’s lives, helps to perpetuate genocide and its effects, and violates the Geneva Conventions.

Even though the Hyde Amendment, a similar domestic amendment to the Helms Amendment, includes exceptions for rape and cases in which the mother’s health is in danger, foreign victims of war rape are not afforded these rights.

In 2015, Obama noted that the “Golden Rule,” that “seems to bind people of all faiths,” is to “treat one another as we wish to be treated,” — to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” If victims of war rape are to receive the medical care they deserve, the Obama Administration must apply this Golden Rule not only to domestic victims of rape, but to war rape victims in other countries as well.This involves recognizing their rights to non-discriminatory medical treatment and issuing an executive order that limits the scope of the Helms Amendment.

GJC President Janet Benshoof Speaks at the World Humanitarian Summit Opening Plenary Session

GJC President, Janet Benshoof, spoke in Istanbul, Turkey, on May 24, 2016, on GJC’s commitment to ensuring women have equal protection under the Geneva Conventions. You can watch the speech here and read the full transcript below.


Transcript, Janet Benshoof’s remarks, World Humanitarian Summit, May 24, 2016

Thank you, distinguished participants. My name is Janet Benshoof, and I’m the President of the Global Justice Center, a human rights organization dedicated to taking international law from paper to practice, to making the law a living reality for all people everywhere.

This summit is critical. States have demonstrated an unprecedented commitment to humanitarian aid policies that advance women’s rights to equality.  The Global Justice Center is committed to ensuring that women’s equality rights are permanent, irreversible, and enforceable by international laws. While today’s humanitarian aid is provided in a variety of situations including conflict and natural disasters, that aid is governed under different legal regimes. One set of principles, one set of laws, does not fit all humanitarian action. In conflict, international humanitarian law governs the rights of girls and women and all war victims targeted by rape and other forms of sexual violence.

The Global Justice Center pledges to speak up to ensure that women get equal protection under the Geneva Conventions. The Geneva Conventions, including Common Article 3, are not gender blind. Civilians and combatants have positive inalienable rights to nondiscrimination as the Geneva Conventions define nondiscrimination. And this means that women are entitled to special needs, special rights, and the only distinction that is prohibited is when it is adverse to women.

This means that girls and women who are raped and impregnated in armed conflict must be provided with all the medical care they need, in all circumstances, regardless of national laws, just like other wounded civilians and soldiers. This includes abortion services, which are necessary to save the health and lives of girls. Half of those who become pregnant in armed conflict are children.

To uphold the Geneva Conventions, humanitarian actors must ensure that the outcome, not a gender sensitive process, of medical care provided women is in no way less favorable than the medical care provided men. Although aid to victims of armed conflict is only a small proportion of all humanitarian aid, upholding the strong equality rights for women under the Geneva Conventions is a bellwether for a global humanitarian regime that furthers the rule of law and advances global justice. We must not let the Geneva Conventions remain mired in the patriarchal mud of their origins.

Thank you!

Gender and Genocide in the ICRtoP Blog

Read Global Justice Center Legal Director Akila Radhakrishnan’s explanation of the gender components of genocide in the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect Blog.

“It’s not enough to just recognize that acts such as sexual violence, abductions, enslavement, forced abortion, and forced impregnation—acts which are disproportionately committed against women—of protected groups can constitute genocide. Rather, the commission of such acts needs to impel action for states and international actors to fulfill their obligations to prevent, suppress and punish genocide. "

On Anniversary of Roe v. Wade, US Can’t Forget Women Overseas

Forty-three years ago today, the Supreme Court deemed abortion a constitutionally protected right for women in the United States in Roe v. Wade, taking a huge step forward for women’s equality. Since then, anti-choice lawmakers at the federal and state-level have been working concertedly to render this right meaningless by restricting access to abortion.

The Guttmacher Institute recently found that states have enacted 1,074 abortion restrictions since 1973.  One of the longest-standing restrictions is the Helms Amendments, which has been in place since December 1973 and prevents the use of U.S. foreign aid to pay for abortion services, even in the case of rape, incest or life endangerment.  

Shutting down federal funding for abortion services exacerbates one of the longest-standing barriers to abortion access: the cost. As anti-choice lawmakers have known for the past four decades, if the right to abortion can’t be eliminated, the next best thing is to make abortion access practically impossible.

The Helms Amendment impacts some of the most vulnerable women and girls in the world; those raped in war. Through the continued imposition of the Helms Amendment without exceptions, the U.S. is denying abortion access to women enslaved and raped by groups like ISIS and Boko Haram, and to girls as young as 12 raped in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The U.S. is laudably the world’s largest provider of development and humanitarian aid. Through this aid, the U.S. funds a variety of initiatives around the world, including health care services in conflict zones. But when girls and women present at these U.S. funded health centers for medical care, while they may have access to a wide range of services, safe abortion is not one of them. Insultingly, if these women seek out an unsafe abortion and have medical consequences, they can go to a U.S. funded health care provider for post-abortion care, but only after they have put their own life in danger. Not only is this policy illegal under international law, its consequences are dire and often deadly.

Yesterday, in a receiving line at a town hall in Iowa, Hillary Clinton was asked by an activist whether she would “help fix the Helms Amendment” as president, to which she gave a resounding yes.   There has been no stronger advocate of women’s rights and abortion rights in the current presidential campaign than Clinton. Rightly framing abortion as a class and racial issue, she’s drawn attention to the fact that making abortion unaffordable essentially renders the right to it meaningless, in particular for low-income women.  However, Ms. Clinton, as a part of the Obama Administration, had ample opportunity to act on the Helms Amendment but failed to do so.

During her tenure as Secretary of State, the Helms Amendment’s impact of women raped in war was raised with the Obama Administration multiple times, including during the 2010 Universal Periodic Review of the United States. However, despite the fact that President Obama can take steps through executive action to limit the impact of the Helms Amendment, he and his Administration have continually failed to take any action—to the detriment of countless women around the world.

Like Roe & the U.S. Constitution, a variety of international instruments, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Geneva Conventions, the Convention against Torture, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, enshrine and protect rights to abortion for women around the world. However, as long as the U.S. remains the world’s largest donor of development and humanitarian aid, abortion restrictions on foreign assistance, such as the Helms Amendment, will continue to impede the ability of women around the world to exercise their right to abortion services.  

Today, as we reflect on the legacy of Roe, and sit on pins and needles as we anticipate the arguments and Supreme Court decision in Whole Women’s Health v. Cole, let us also reflect on the idea that the right to abortion is nothing without the protection of actual access to these services, including through public funding. And that policymakers in Washington D.C. shouldn’t be the reason that women are unable to exercise their rights around the world.


Akila Radhakrishnan is the Legal Director at the Global Justice Center. She has published articles in The Atlantic, Women Under Siege, RH Reality Check, Ms. Magazine, the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy and Reproductive Laws for the Twenty-First Century.