Abortion Access in Conflict
Today, September 28th is the Global Day of Action for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion, an international day celebrated to draw attention to the fact that access to safe and legal abortion is a necessary social good and a human right.
Due to the Helms Amendment that was passed in 1973 as a reaction against Roe vs. Wade, the US currently restricts the provision of safe abortion services with its foreign assistance. These restrictions result in the systematic denial of abortions in the vast majority of humanitarian medical settings around the world.
In today’s conflicts, sexual violence is used systematically by groups such as ISIS and Boko Haram to demoralize, terrorize, destroy, and even alter the ethnic compositions of entire communities. The US’ denial of safe abortion services to victims of these attacks results in extended and intensified physical and mental suffering.
Childbirth is fourteen times more likely to lead to death than a safe abortion, becoming pregnant from rape in the conditions of war further increases the risk of maternal mortality. Rape causes many physical injuries that increase the danger of pregnancy and childbirth. For many victims of war rape, abortion is a safer option than a dangerous pregnancy.
Furthermore, denial of abortion to a war rape victim compounds the severe mental pain and suffering they are experiencing. Research has shown that being forced to bear the child of a rapist “prolongs the perpetrator’s intrusion, often causing great anguish and shame to the victim.”
Women seeking illegal abortion services also face the stress of having to seek unsafe treatment with “uncertain outcomes, no proper aftercare and the possibility of being imprisoned if found out.” Impregnated war rape victims are also up to six times more likely to be divorced than those who were not raped and often experience community rejection and physical violence.
Denial of abortion services for rape victims also deprives these women and girls of their decision-making power over their own bodies and can perpetuate victim’s feelings of loss of control, compounding their mental and emotional trauma, causing serious traumatic and stress and a risk of long-lasting psychological problems.
The Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment has found that “highly restrictive abortion laws that prohibit abortions even in cases of incest, rape or fetal impairment or to safeguard the health of the woman violate women’s rights to be free from torture and ill-treatment.” They also found that “[s]tates have an affirmative obligation to reform restrictive abortion legislation that perpetuates torture and ill-treatment by denying women safe access and care.”
It is time for the US and all states to stand up for the rights of women raped in war and not compound their suffering by denying them necessary medical care.
Today we ask you to #BustTheMyths surrounding abortion and fight #AbortionStigmaand the denial of abortion services to women raped in war!
You can read more about our campaign here.
GJC Staff Attorney Grant Shubin wrote an article in Ms. Magazine on the devastating effect of the Helms Amendment on women and girls in war zones.
Click here to read the full article.
by Carolina van der Mensbrugghe
Since 2011, the Syrian civil war continues to inflict irreparable harm on its civilian population and has resulted in over one quarter million civilian deaths. A disturbing and specific factor of the Syrian conflict is the brutal and systematic use of rape and other forms of violence against women. Rape – whether perpetrated by ISIS militants, the Damascus regime, or other rebels, is a fate far worse than death for many Syrian women.
In Latakia, a woman reportedly committed suicide because was unable to abort an unwanted pregnancy. Another woman was thrown off a balcony by her own father after he found out she was pregnant as a result of gang rape. Countless other women provided testimony that speaks to the gravity of the violence inflicted on their bodies, be it as an act of genocide, seen with Yazidi women kidnapped by ISIS, or as a weapon of war to destroy and divide rebel communities in opposition of the Assad regime.
To quote writer and Syrian refugee, Samar Yazbek, “[women’s] bodies have become battlefields and torture chambers.”
The Syrian conflict is considered the “largest humanitarian crisis of our time,” according to USAID. A recent report from the Syrian Refugees Website, a project of the Migration Policy Centre at the European University Institute in Florence, indicates that there are about 11 million refugees and over 13.5 million civilians in need of humanitarian aid.Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), wants to direct more international aid towards assisting women and girls, who he describes as “the most vulnerable and the ones who suffer most.” Women and girls, he further notes, are facing a campaign of widespread rape combined with a woeful lack of reproductive health services.
An estimated 500,000 pregnant Syrian women remain in the war-torn country or are in nearby nations. More than ever, access to abortion services is a critical form of medical care for these wartime rape victims, as well as protected right under the Geneva Conventions. Yet safe abortion services remain woefully lacking. Post-abortion care (care that’s required when women have undergone unsafe abortion procedures), has been identified as one of the major challenges in refugee camps.
Misallocation of funds is partly to blame, which Osotimehin concedes is due to the prioritization of providing food, shelter, and water over “women’s issues.” The resulting gendered bias towards issue-areas renders the discussion of “the dignity, the welfare, and the security of women (…) something that doesn’t play out at all” in donor nations discussions according to Osotimehin. The resulting impact this bias has had on dictating how to address and allocate humanitarian aid is devastating.
Another reason that fewer rape victims are receiving the essential medical care they need is that nearly all the major humanitarian groups in Syria, including UNFPA, are subject to American anti-abortion restrictions on humanitarian aid. The United States, through USAID, continues to be the largest government donor to the Syria crisis, with contributions of nearly $5.6 billion, between 2011 and 2016, matching the next three largest donors’ funding combined. This US monopoly limits in large part the services humanitarian aid providers can make available and equipment they can buy with US funds,
This summer, the Democratic Party, in a historic first step, has included in its platform a vow to overturn all domestic laws that impede a woman’s access to abortion, including the Helms Amendment. The reversal of this ban would allow US foreign aid to be used for abortions and other reproductive medical care desperately needed by thousands of women in Syria and throughout the world.
This year is the 67th Anniversary of the Geneva Conventions. We must reflect as a nation on both the historical legacy, as well as the ongoing protections the treaties afford civilians in conflict. In its inception the Geneva Conventions sought to define the scope of international humanitarian law by regulating armed conflict in service of offering combatants and civilians unalienable protections.
Just as the Geneva Conventions, and their application, have expanded over time in recognition of the evolving nature of armed conflicts, so too must convention signatories commit to modifying domestic policies that obstruct adherence to the treaties’ binding obligations. Such obligations include providing the right to all necessary medical care, which includes access to abortion services for war rape victims.
It is President Obama’s last opportunity to seize this call to action and pass an Executive Order that lifts the Helms Amendment restrictions and recommits American policy to its humanitarian legal obligations. USAID has already recognized the gravity of the Syrian crisis, both in terms of policy commitment and total aid donations. Now, with the support of the new democratic platform, it must incorporate a gender-sensitive commitment to the women of the Syrian crisis in its aid packages, which must include abortion services as obligated by the Geneva Conventions.
By Martin Fowler
By the time Republican Jesse Helms ended his 30-year Senate career in 2003, his opponents and allies had long-since named him “Senator No.” From deriding civil rights reformers as “moral degenerates,” (noting their opposition to “the purely scientific, statistical evidence of natural racial distinctions in group intellect,”) to fervently opposing AIDS research and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Helms did indeed oppose most progressive ideas. It was therefore no surprise that he found himself as one of the loudest voices of the anti-abortion backlash against the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v Wade ruling that recognized a woman’s constitutional right to abortion.
Helms - a college dropout and television commentator who grew up poor in North Carolina – had just been elected to the Senate when the Supreme Court handed down its landmark Roe v Wade decision. A product of the 1960s feminist movement, Roe v Wade considered state-level abortion bans and restrictions. In their 7-2 ruling, the Supreme Court found that a Texas law criminalizing abortion violated a woman’s constitutional right to privacy – a decision since seen as a foundational victory for the US reproductive rights movement.
This expansion of women’s rights angered conservative senators – and Jesse Helms especially so. The years he had spent denouncing American liberal ideas and programs on North Carolina television – once lambasting Social Security as “nothing more than doles and handouts,” - should have provided the public with a hint of what was to come. Buoyed by the reignited anti-abortion movement, Helms wasted little time finding ways to challenge and oppose women’s advances in reproductive rights.
He soon sponsored, and Congress passed, a bill named the Helms Amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act. The Amendment, seeking to limit US involvement in overseas abortions, prohibited US foreign assistance funding of programs engaged in the provision of abortions as a “method of family planning.” Even programs that merely sought to “motivate or coerce,” someone to perform such abortions were banned. Helms had thus scored one of his early Senate victories by limiting women’s access to abortions – medical interventions the effects of which, he opined in his 2005 memoirs, were “another kind of holocaust.”
Undoubtedly a defeat for the reproductive rights movement, few could foresee the Helms Amendment’s devastating effects. While the inclusion of “family planning,” suggested that abortions in other cases – rape or incest, for example – would be allowed, the amendment’s interpretation by the Bush Administration disregarded “family planning,” thereby instituting a total ban on all foreign aid funding of abortions, an interpretation the Obama Administration continues.
43 years after “Senator No,” passed the Helms Amendment, its effects are still being felt. Despite international law establishing non-discriminatory medical care as a right, the US still refuses to provide abortions to girls and women raped in war – who are considered individuals seeking abortions for other reasons than “family planning.” This means that the Yazidi women sexually enslaved by ISIS, for example, risk death or an uncertain future in the face of the US ban.
Recognizing that #HelmsHurts, the Global Justice Center recently launched a White House petition to change the Helms Amendment; we ask President Obama to take steps through executive action to allow for US funding of abortions for war rape victims.
Say no to the #HelmsLegacy: sign and share the petitionand help women and girls around the world get access to the lifesaving medical care they deserve.
GJC Legal Director Akila Radhakrishnan Published in Time on the Anniversary of the Geneva Conventions
GJC Legal Director Akila Radhakrishnan's article "How Obama Failed Women Raped in War" was published in today's edition of Time.
Click here to read the full article.
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.
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.
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.
For six years President Obama has failed to extend abortion funding to rape victims in war zones. At this Reproaction Act and Learn webinar, advocates and experts explained the Helms Amendment and how President Obama’s continued inaction hurts women around the world. We provided a clear answer to this common question: What’s the difference between Helms, Hyde, and the Global Gag Rule? Finally, we shared actions you can take to ensure Obama doesn’t leave a #BadLegacy on reproductive rights.
Featuring these guest panelists:
- Rev. Harry Knox, President/CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice
- Akila Radhakrishnan, Legal Director for the Global Justice Center
- Beirne Roose-Snyder, Director of Public Policy for the Center for Health and Gender Equity (by advance remarks)
If you support Reproaction’s #BadLegacy campaign, or want to find out what it’s all about, you won’t want to miss this webinar.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE—September 2, 2015
[WASHINGTON D.C.] On September 1, 2015, in its response to challenges to US abortion restrictions on foreign assistance, the Obama Administration signaled support for addressing the medical needs of girls and women raped and impregnated in armed conflict.
Join the Global Justice Center for a Twitter Chat on Wednesday, August 12, 2015, 11am-12pm
Below you will find GJC's social media kit for the Twitter Chat, including sample tweets and Facebook posts.
The 2016 election season in the US is upon us. Politicians have already begun to declare their candidacies and have begun campaigning.
One big name candidate is Hillary Clinton, running on the Democratic ticket. In one of her campaign videos posted to Facebook on July 21, she responded to Mitch McConnell’s assertion that she is playing the “gender card” by standing up for women’s rights. A blurb accompanying the video reads, “So—what cards are he and other Republicans holding?” However, there is something troubling in Clinton’s response video that must be addressed.
The video shows a person’s hand holding a deck of cards. Throughout the video, the person reveals cards that have been edited to depict information about Clinton’s Republican opposition and their various misogynistic policies and rhetoric. It ends with a clip of Clinton speaking.
One piece of information that appears on a card is that Scott Walker and John Kasich both signed laws that ban abortions after 20 weeks, even when rape and incest are involved. While this snippet aims to undermine her opponents and reveal her commitment to women’s rights, Clinton fails to address the crucial, troubling truth of the matter: that her own Democratic party is perpetuating an abortion ban abroad in US foreign policy.
The 1973 Helms amendment prohibits any US foreign aid from funding abortions, regardless of whether the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest. This abortion ban prevents women and girls who have been raped in conflict from accessing abortions that could save their lives and help relieve their suffering.
Pressure is currently mounting on President Obama to issue an executive order overturning Helms; however, he has not yet acted. In May, five countries challenged the US’s implementation of Helms at the US’s Universal Periodic Review (a review of the US human rights record). Furthermore, in early July more than 50 human rights groups signed on to a letter that was sent to President Obama urging him to respond to the UPR and stand up for women and girls around the world. He has until September to respond.
Clinton is bold to call out Scott Walker and John Kasich for their staunch anti-choice beliefs, which impact women and girls in the US every day. However, it is time for the US to stand up for women and girls around the world and lift the abortion ban internationally. There is an evident discrepancy between the way Democrats approach abortion internally and abroad, and this hypocrisy must be addressed.
Watch the video here.
Read more about the UPR here.
Read more about the sign on letter here.
Memo to Interested Partners Concerned About the U.S. Response to UPR Recommendations on U.S. Abortion Restrictions
U.S. domestic obligations under Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions conflict with U.S. abortion restrictions on humanitarian aid for female war rape victims.
Coalition of Human Rights, Legal, Medical and Religious Groups Call on Obama to Lift Abortion Ban on Aid to War Rape Victims
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - July 7, 2015
[NEW YORK, NY]– Pressure is mounting on the White House to lift the abortion ban on US foreign aid for girls and women raped in armed conflicts. An international coalition of human rights, legal, medical and religious groups have signed a letter to President Obama urging him to issue an executive order lifting the ban and affirming the rights of female war rape victims to comprehensive medical care, including abortion, under the Geneva Conventions.
Today, more than 50 human rights groups from over 22 different countries took action on behalf of women and girls raped in conflict by sending a letter to President Obama pressuring him to issue an executive order that would lift the Helms abortion ban. Among the organizations that have signed the letter are the Global Justice Center, Amnesty International, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, Human Rights Watch, and the World Organization Against Torture. Groups have also signed onto the letter from conflict countries directly impacted by the abortion ban, including the West African Bar Association, the Iraq Women’s Network, the Syrian women’s League, and the Nigerian Medical Women’s Association. This letter is a testament to the pressure that is mounting on the United States to affirm the rights of female war rape victims as mandated under the Geneva Conventions.
At the United States’ Universal Periodic Review (UPR) that took place in May 2015, the United Nations Human Rights Council reviewed the United States’ human rights record. Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Norway, and the United Kingdom formally recommended that the United States take action on an outdated abortion ban that violates the Geneva Conventions: the Helms Amendment.
The 1973 Helms Amendment is a huge obstacle in giving women and girls who have been victims of sexual violence the medical care that they need. These war rape victims are being denied lifesaving medical care, as the Helms Amendment prohibits U.S. foreign aid from being used to fund necessary abortions. Being the world’s largest donor of humanitarian aid, the U.S. is currently imposing its abortion ban on the United Nations, non-governmental organizations, and the countries of conflict themselves.
With the systemic rape and forced impregnation of women and girls by extremist groups such as ISIL and Boko Haram, it is vital that the U.S. overturn its abortion ban. The denial of abortions, especially in these circumstances, violates the rights of women and girls in conflict as mandated under the Geneva Conventions. These women and girls have the right to non-discriminatory medical care and freedom from torture.
The U.S. must respond to the UPR’s recommendations regarding the Helms amendment by this September. The Global Justice Center urges President Obama to execute an executive order to lift the abortion ban tied to U.S. foreign aid for, at a minimum, women and girls whose lives are endangered or who have suffered through rape and/or incest. Furthermore, the Global Justice Center encourages the President to affirm U.S. support for non-discriminatory medical care for women and girls around the world.
The clock is ticking. President Obama has less than two months left to respond to the UPR recommendations. The Global Justice Center urges the President to overturn the ban so that U.S. aid will serve its purpose, lives will be saved, and suffering will be alleviated.
Read the full letter sent to President Obama here.
Read GJC’s press release regarding the letter here.
Today marks exactly one year since ISIS declared a caliphate in Iraq and Syria. An NBC News article by Cassandra Vinograd and Ammar Cheikh Omar published this morning discusses the strength that ISIS has amassed during the past year. ISIS has maintained control and been strengthened by territorial expansion and the far-reaching influence of its ideology. Affiliates of ISIS have even sprung up around the world, for example in Nigeria, where Boko Haram has pledged its allegiance to ISIS. It is even speculated that Boko Haram will soon declare a caliphate of its own.
There have been many attempts to curb ISIS’s power over the past year. However, the Iraqi military is not effective at fighting ISIS, and even though the United States has tried to weaken ISIS with airstrikes since last August, ISIS does not seem to be faltering. There are also hundreds of rebel groups that are currently fighting ISIS under the FSA, but they are not well organized and are lacking in resources, ammunition, and arms. Conversely, ISIS is extremely coordinated and well-resourced. In fact, “more people than ever are perpetrating violence in the group’s name.” The propaganda issued by ISIS is “infectious” and is successful at attracting fighters. So far the coalition forces have not been able to stop this trend, or ISIS itself.
According to Human Rights Watch’s April 15, 2015 publication “Iraq: ISIS Escapees Describe Systemic Rape,” ISIS has been committing war crimes against women and girls by systemically raping them, assaulting them, and subjecting them to sexual slavery. These women and girls are regarded as property and are forced to endure intense torture. The exact number of captive Yazidis is unknown due to the fact that the conflict is ongoing and many Yazidis have had to flee. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, roughly 3,000 Yazidis are still in captivity while other sources, such as local officials and community activists, believe that the numbers are much higher.
While it is important for the international community to be working towards the long term goal of weakening ISIS, there are steps that can be taken immediately to help the woman and girls who suffer daily under their reign of terror. For example, Yazidi women and girls are being systematically raped by ISIS and are being forced to carry the child of their rapist due to an antiquated US policy. It is crucial that President Obama overturn the 1973 Helms Amendment, which prevents any US aid from funding imperative, safe abortions to these women and girls who are in desperate need of relief. The international community should also be working to end impunity for the perpetrators of sexual violence. For example, it is vital that the International Criminal Court recognize the gendered abductions of these Yazidi women and girls as genocide. Recognizing this as genocide will cause an immediate duty to act among states and send a clear message to the perpetrators of this sexual violence that it will not be tolerated. The women and girls living in Iraq and Syria cannot wait another day, and the US and international community cannot wait another year to take actions on their behalf.