Abortion Access in Conflict

Since the passing of Roe vs. Wade, the United States has been placing abortion restrictions on its foreign aid. These restrictions impact thousands of girls and women raped in armed conflict who are routinely denied access to safe abortions.

Women and girls raped in war are considered “wounded and sick” and therefore are entitled to full medical care under the Geneva Conventions. For rape victims, this medical care includes abortion services. Our Abortion Access in Conflict campaign demands women and girls receive the necessary medical care they need.

GJC is fighting for the US to lift the abortion restrictions placed on all humanitarian aid for war victims and do so while explicitly referencing the rights of female war victims under the Geneva Conventions. We are fighting to ensure that abortions are provided on the ground in humanitarian medical settings around the world.

CEDAW Review Showcases State Parties’ Reluctance to Fully Disclose Shortcomings in Abortion Policies and the Subsequent Repercussions

July 9, 2012 began the 52nd Session of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.  This session, which continues for three weeks, includes reviews of the reports submitted by several countries that are up for review.  Each country that is a party to the Convention must submit periodic reports as an accountability measure detailing how they are complying with the requirements of the Convention, along with progress and updates relevant to the Convention.  Upon reviewing each country’s submission, the Committee is then able to question the country regarding its report, and make general recommendations.  While the reports are intended to detail all areas of the country that pertain to the Convention, there are often gaps in information or areas that are not given the same degree of focus as others.  Proposing questions to the country’s delegation allows the Committee to dig deeper to find out that missing information, or reasons as to why it was not included in the first place, as well as to challenge any areas where the country does not appear to be meeting the standards required by the Convention.

On July 17, Mexico was up for review.  The head of the Mexican delegation began by presenting a synopsis of the country report to the Committee.  After about an hour, the question and answer period began where many issues were discussed including women’s access to education, female representation in government, violence against women, and more.  While there seemed to be a heavy focus on addressing the state of violence against women and female missing persons, there was a noticeable lack of attention to the issue of women’s access to abortions and the inconsistent policies throughout the country relating to abortions.  The subject of abortion was not raised during Mexico’s introductory presentation and even in the question period it took a significant amount of time for anyone to even mention it.

The questioning segment of the review is conducted by taking several questions at a time, and then intermittently allowing the delegation up for review to organize a response to all of the questions presented so as to allow for efficient answers and avoid overlap and repetition.  While this method does allow for consolidation of responses, it also presents the opportunity to gloss over certain questions or parts of questions, which is precisely what happened with most of the instances where abortion was included as a part of a question.   CEDAW experts asked about ensuring that federalism would not be used to perpetuate the limiting of women’s human rights and about the impact of failure to universally provide abortions on maternal mortality rates.  In both instances, the delegation attempted to skirt the issue, but when they were finally pressed upon it, they were forced to concede their shortcomings.

Mexico universally allows for abortion in the case of rape.  However in other circumstances, the individual states within Mexico determine their own legislation on the issue, and there are several states that protect life at conception.  This inconsistency and great potential for discrimination precipitated the question on federalism.  The delegation finally admitted that due to the current state of Mexican laws, it is possible that one’s degree of protection against discrimination varies simply depending upon where she is born.  They recognized that they must make headway in terms of equality in this area, especially regarding their CEDAW obligations, and they have not yet achieved this.  The delegation furthermore stated that failure to provide access to safe abortions continues to be one of the leading causes, the 5thleading cause to be exact, of maternal mortality.  While they claim that Mexico is committed to reducing the maternal mortality rate, they simultaneously have disclosed that the 7% of maternal deaths result from abortion related issues, and that figure is not decreasing fast enough despite the programs and measures put in place.

The main point of concern is surprisingly, not only the fact that Mexico has such a long way to go in the realm of guaranteeing universally equal abortion rights and working towards decreasing maternal mortality rates.  The most disconcerting facet of this situation is how easily overlooked the entire topic of abortion almost was.  Not only was Mexico ready to push abortion aside and hope no one would bring it up, but when it was brought up, the delegation was almost completely able to leave those questions unanswered.  Only when the CEDAW experts consistently and adamantly pressed for answers to their questions was the delegation finally sufficiently cornered such that they couldn’t avoid the question any longer.  The purpose of reviewing the parties to the Convention is to ensure that the parties are adhering to the Convention.  The only way to truly ensure this is if all parties cooperate and participate in an honest manner.  It is hardly expected that upon signing a treaty every party will instantly conform to the requirements of that treaty.  Instead, progress and effort must be demonstrated that the parties are moving in the direction of full fulfillment of the requirements.  However, either for fear of sanctions, unwillingness to make the necessary changes, or some other motivator that prevents parties from addressing the areas they need to improve in, parties seem to consistently fail to fully convey an accurate portrayal of what is happening in the country.  Fortunately, NGOs often pick up the slack by filing shadow reports, making sure that Committees has a more complete picture of the state of affairs.  However, the CEDAW review of Mexico highlights the need for countries to be more amenable to complete, true reports, and shows the need for Committee members and any other reviewing body to take a skeptical eye to reports submitted by countries.

Disappointment at Rio+20 for Women

The outcome of the Rio+20 summit failed women everywhere. Language regarding reproductive rights and gender equality was dropped from the draft agreement, representing a significant step backwards from earlier agreements.

Going into the summit, the draft document included specific language ensuring reproductive rights and gender equality. A handful of oppressive regimes opposed this language and the Holy See led the opposition in an influential campaign that insisted on equating women’s reproductive rights with abortion. In reality, reproductive rights are about a great deal more than abortion, but unfortunately, the Holy See was able to assert enough pressure to succeed in getting the language removed from the agreement, leaving behind only vague references to reproductive health.

Ironically, most states are already under obligation to ensure reproductive rights and gender equality. As of today, 187 states have ratified Convention on the Elimination on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which requires member states to, among other things, take affirmative action to eliminate gender discrimination and to ensure that women have access to affordable, quality health services, including reproductive health. In fact, lack of access to reproductive health services and information is considered discriminatory against women under CEDAW. Unfortunately, due to weak enforcement mechanisms and a substantial number of reservations taken by states in ratifying the convention, performance of state obligations under CEDAW has been relatively poor. Including strong reproductive rights and gender equality commitments in the Rio+20 agreement would have been an excellent way to reinforce the importance of these issues, especially since it would have been from a sustainable development perspective.

Every day, evidence of the importance of reproductive rights and gender equality can be found in the news. For instance, Save the Children just came out with a  report on family planning finding that complications during pregnancy is the number one killer of teenage girls worldwide; babies born to mothers under the age of 18 are 60% more likely to die before their first birthday; and a “major barrier to family planning is that many vulnerable women and girls are unable to exercise their rights to make decisions over their own health care, including family planning.” Additionally, in Uganda, where approximately 16 women die during childbirth every day, women activists are currently taking a case to the Supreme Court in an effort to force the government to provide better maternal health care.

Rio+20 represents a lost opportunity. What could have been a significant step forward for women’s rights turned into yet another instance where women were left out of the picture.

If These Walls Cold Talk, They Would Be Censored: U.S. Restrictions on Pro-Choice Speech

If United States foreign assistance funded the writing of this paper, which addresses free speech and women‘s rights issues of the utmost international concern, the authors, two United States citizens, would be censored—by U.S. law—from making any statements that advocated for abortion in any context.

Because the writing of this paper is not conditioned on the revocation of the authors‘ First Amendment rights, this paper can and will examine the legality and impact of U.S. abortion speech restrictions on foreign assistance recipients. The restrictions violate U.S. constitutional protections of free speech and contravene international law regarding democratic reform of criminal abortion laws abroad and human rights guarantees, including the right to health. Although the U.S. places myriad abortion-related restrictions on foreign assistance, this paper focuses on the speech concerns of the Helms Amendment3 in the context of domestic constitutional law and the Helms and Siljander Amendments4 in the context of international law. 

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Children of War

The conversation about the importance of providing abortion services to victims of rape in armed conflicts would be incomplete without looking at the impact on children born to rape victims. The international community has already recognized forced pregnancy as a crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) but it has a limited application since it requires all three elements of the crime to be satisfied. Article 7, paragraph 2 (f) requires–(1) unlawful confinement of a woman (2) forcibly made pregnant (3) with the intent of carrying out other grave violations of the international law. It is unclear what exactly falls under other grave violations of international law and means that women who were forcibly made pregnant but escaped or forcibly made pregnant without the requisite intent are not protected under the Statute.

As a result of rape or forced impregnation, these unwanted children whose mothers were forced to carry them to term due to lack of abortion services are often subject to stigma, discrimination, abandonment, abuse, neglect, and even infanticide, especially in cases of boys who are seen as potential enemy combatants. These children are commonly rejected not only by their mothers who seek to avoid shame but also by the entire community- they are seen as illegitimate, “enemy” children and may be denied citizenship rights, effectively rendering them stateless. In Rwanda, children born out of rape are often referred to as “children of hate” or “children of bad memories.”Lacking necessary support from their mothers and communities, rape children are caught up in a vicious cycle and end up getting exploited, becoming child soldiers or turning to prostitution and crime. They are more likely to suffer psychological and physical trauma as a result of unsuccessful abortion attempts by their mothers or nonexistent neonatal care, and are at a higher risk to contract HIV. They also often have attachment and trust issues even later in life and are unable to maintain familial relationships. Even children who are kept by their mothers are often raised in extreme poverty resulting from societal stigma that prevents rape victims from finding a job given lack family support or alternative childcare options.

Currently there are no specific initiatives by the international community that would protect and provide assistance to rape babies. The ICRC, WHO, and UNFPA merely issued recommendations recognizing the need to combat stigma associated with rape children. Readily available access to safe abortion services could provide an immediate solution for rape victims who are now forced to carry to term an unwanted pregnancy and later abandon or even murder their unwanted children.

Syria to reconsider its abortion law

Recently a Saudi cleric Sheikh Ali al-Maliki expressed an opinion that Syrian women raped by gang-like militia or forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad should be allowed to undergo abortion.  He described rape as one of the most heinous crimes against women that is worse than murder.

Current Syrian law only allows abortion to save woman’s life making abortion in all other circumstances including illegal.  Penalty for performing an abortion with woman’s consent is one to three years imprisonment, and penalty for a woman who consented to abortion is six months to three years imprisonment but can be reduced if abortion is done to save woman’s honor. Syria is officially a secular state with the vast majority of its population practicing Islam but its abortion restrictions are harsh even for the Islamic world.  Schools of Muslim law universally accept that abortion is permitted if continuing the pregnancy would put the mother’s life in danger even if the pregnancy is over 120 days old but variation of thought exists when it comes to other exceptions to the abortion ban. Tunisia and Turkey have significantly liberalized their abortion law and allow it under virtually all circumstances within the first trimester, although a recent bill pending in Turkey could effectively outlaw abortion. Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia allow abortion in cases of serious health risk. Iran, Kuwait, and Qatar created an exception in cases of fetal defects assuming the pregnancy is less than 120 days old. Sudan, Egypt, Bosnia, Algeria, and Bangladesh make abortion permissible in circumstances of rape or incest. Examples of the above mentioned interpretations show that Islamic law can be flexible when it comes to women’s reproductive rights. Pending decision of the Council of Senior Muslim Scholars, Syrian women might soon also be able to legally abort fetuses conceived as a result of war rape.

The US Leads in ICRC Aid Donations, but Restricts Equal Rights for Aid Recipients

The United States strives to be a leader among the nations in terms of equality and fairness.  However, one area that starkly contrasts that desire is the US policy regarding how to use the funds it donates to humanitarian aid.  The United States is the largest contributor of humanitarian aid to the ICRC.  Along with its donation of over 240 million Swiss Francs, the US has instructed that its aid may not be used to fund abortions under any circumstances.

As the largest donor of aid to the ICRC, the US retains a great deal of control over how that money is spent.  In addition to holding the power to restrict how its own contributions are spent, the US’s power extends further in some instances to determine how donations from other sources may be restricted as well.  If the ICRC is funding an initiative with money that comes from the US as well as other governments whose funds may contain no restrictions, the entire initiative will be subjected to the restrictions that the US has placed on its donations.

Women who have been raped in armed conflict have been recognized as under the category of “wounded, sick, and shipwrecked” under the Geneva Conventions Additional Protocols, and that affords them the right to receive medical care to the greatest extent practicable, including abortions.  Without the ability to receive safe, legal abortions, pregnant war rape victims will be forced to endure great psychological and physical pain and in many cases resort to clandestine abortions or even suicide.

The repercussions that result from failure to provide abortions to war rape victims are enormously detrimental and the practice is blatantly discriminatory against women.  Many organizations and countries, notably the Paris Bar and the German Women Lawyers’ Association, have supported the efforts to try to get the US to change its policies and lift the ban on abortions for its international aid.  Most recently, the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR) has written to President Obama asking him to lift the restrictions through executive order.  ECWR, being the first Middle Eastern organization to support these efforts, is setting the tone for the rest of the international community as well as the United States itself, and that tone is one of equality and intolerance of discrimination.

In its letter to President Obama, ECWR points out the hypocrisy of the United States.  The US consistently demands that Middle Eastern countries end discrimination against women and advocate for women’s equality, yet they fail to follow through with the same position that they advocate by maintaining these discriminatory restrictions.  It is time for the US to put an end to its double standard and to institute the same policies domestically that it promotes for states.  The US is the example that other countries strive to emulate.  With restrictions that so blatantly discriminate against women, the US as an example leaves much to be desired and must rectify this injustice immediately, and truly demonstrate to the international community what is right.

Vice-Presidents of European Parliament Urge President Obama to Lift US Abortion Restrictions


[NEW YORK, NY] -  The Global Justice Center's August 12th campaign is gaining momentum. The Vice-Presidents of the European Parliament have written a letter to Obama to issue an Executive order to lift all current U.S abortion restrictions that prohibit girls and women raped in armed conflict from terminating their pregnancy.

Contradictions and Empty Guestures – USAID’s New Policy on Gender Equality

According to the United States Agency of International Development’s new Gender Equality and Female Empowerment Policy, “Gender equality and female empowerment are …fundamental for the realization of human rights.” This policy directing USAID aims to: Reduce gender disparities in access to resources and opportunities, reduce gender-based violence and mitigate its harmful effects on individuals and communities and increase capabilities of women and girls to realize their rights, determine their life outcomes. Certainly these are lofty and noble goals. Yet, is USAID making an empty gesture?

The tactical and deliberate use of rape as a weapon of war has been reported in at least 36 recent conflicts. Often, rape is used as an effective tool to terrorize and destroy communities, leaving women and girls with significant and sometimes deadly, physical, psychological and social consequences. Following the horrific wake of the Rwandan Genocide, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) found that rape can be a war crime, crime against humanity and constitutive act of genocide.

Yet, for the victims of these heinous crimes, the chance of having a full and healthy life is often denied. Even if women impregnated by rape survive the high risks of maternal mortality, they often suffer further ostracisation from their community. Facing these harmful outcomes, women are denied the option of abortions – perpetuating their suffering and trauma.

USAID, while paying much lip-service to its gender-egalitarian vision, hardly mentions sexual violence against women in its policy. As one of its policy goals, USAID aims to reduce gender-based violence and mitigate its harmful effects. In light of the suffering of impregnated women through rape, isn’t the most effective means in mitigating the harmful effects to provide safe abortions?

However, currently under the Helms Amendment and other related abortion restrictions on foreign assistance, prohibits the use of U.S. foreign assistance funding to motivate or provide abortions. This prohibits all non-governmental organizations (NGOs), governments and humanitarian aid providers from using U.S. funds to “motivate” or provide abortions. The restrictions, placed in allforeign assistance contracts, contain no exceptions for rape or to save the life of a woman and affects the provision of services, as well as censors all abortion speech. Thus far from alleviating and mitigating the harmful effects of sexual violence, the prohibition actually perpetuates further suffering for the victims.

Additionally, the current restrictions violates the rights afforded to the “wounded and sick” persons, who are entitled to non-discriminatory and comprehensive medical care as envisioned under common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions and the legally-binding principles of customary international law. The prohibition has the effect of systematically denying girls and women in armed conflicts the right to complete and comprehensive medical care. How can women realize the fundamental human rights when current USAID restrictions deny them?

Although the USAID’s new policy highlights the importance of gender equality, it fails to meaningfully alleviate the harmful consequences of sexual violence. Behind the talk of gender equality and women empowerment lays a deep contradiction. While promising women relief and the realization of their human rights, USAID restrictions do the opposite. If women are to truly enjoy the ideals set out in USAID’s new policy paper, the Helms Amendment needs to be revoked.

Vice-Presidents of European Parliament Urge President Obama to Lift US Abortion Restrictions

Two Vice-Presidents of the European Parliament, Alexander Alvaro, MEP, and Edward McMillan-Scott, MEP, have written a letter as a part of the GJC's "Augsut 12th Campaign" to Obama to issue an Executive Order to lift all current U.S humanitarian aid restrictions that prohibit girls and women raped in armed conflict from terminating their pregnancy, urging the US to abide by common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.

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UK Parliamentarians' Letter to President Obama

Letter sent to President Obama by a group of UK Parliamentarians' as a part of the GJC's "August 12th Campaign" asking that he issue an Executive Order lifting US abortion restrictions on humanitarian aid.

The letter was signed by: Tom Brake, MP; Baroness Tonge; Lord Ashdown; Ann Coffey, MP; Baroness Ludford, MEP; Jane Ellison, MP; Heidi Alexander, MP; Andrew George, MP; Madeleine Moon, MP; Lord Tope, CBE; Pauline Latham, MP, OBE; Jo Swinson, MP; Rt. Hon. Dame Joan Ruddock, MP; Sir Menzies Campbell, MP, CBE, QC; Baroness Greengross; Debbie Abrahams, MP; Baroness Kinnock of Holy Head; Baroness Walmsley; Baroness Thornton; Kate Green, MP; Sir Bob Russell, MP; Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer; Lord Lester of Herne Hill; Lord Morgan; Baroness Falkner of Margarvine; Lilian Greenwood, MP; Lord Faulkner of Worcester; Lord Richards; Baroness Coussins; Mike Gapes, MP; Jenny Willmott, MP; Lord Redesdale; Baroness Prosser of Battersea; Luciana Berger, MP; Julian Huppert, MP; Rt. Hon. Lord Steel Aikwood; Rt. Hon. Dr. Denis MacShane, MP; John Hemming, MP; Dame Anne Begg, MP; Lord Judd; Lord Puttnam of Queens Gate; Lyn Brown, MP; and Glenda Jackson, MP.

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How the “August 12th Campaign” sparked a movement

Top Queen Councils in protest against President Obama’s “no abortion” clause

The London Times published an article feauturing the Queen’s Counsel’s effort to pressure President Barack Obama to issue an Executive Order lifting the “no abortion” clause that affects U.S humanitarian aid for girls and women involved in conflict.

This movement was inspired by the launching of the Global Justice Center’s “August 12th” campaign which urges President Obama to reinstate U.S support for the Geneva Conventions by removing the blanket abortion prohibitions embedded in U.S humanitarian aid that endanger women and girls who have been raped and impregnated in armed conflict. To read more information regarding to this campaign, click here.

Almost 50 of the UK’s most prominent Queen’s Counsel, headed by Amanda Pinto, QC, director of international affairs of the Criminal Bar Association and Vice Chairman of the international committee of the Bar Council, have written urging Obama to take action on this issue.

To read the article click here.

The Perils of the Inaccessibility to Reproductive Healthcare in Eastern Burma

A woman should never have to resort to using a fishing hook or dangerous medications as the only feasible options to terminating a pregnancy. Yet these dangerous tactics remain pandemic in eastern Burma where inaccessibility to proper healthcare and safe abortions threatens the livelihood of thousands of women. A recent report by Ibis Reproductive Health highlights the dire state that women on the Thai-Burma border are in. The fact that so many women in Burma turn to these fatal and unsafe method of pregnancy termination underscore the need for safe abortions.

Yet, despite this clear need, USAID silences any prospects for these women to enjoy a healthier future. The United States, being the largest donor of humanitarian aid, has an immense amount of influence on how aid is distributed. When Congress implemented the Helms Amendment in 1973, abortion restrictions were placed on foreign aid. Under “Helms” no USAID funding may be used to pay for abortion as a method of family planning. The amendment contains a provision that prohibits abortion speech, saying that the funds cannot be used to “motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions.” The Global Justice Center staunchly argues that these abortion restrictions are a violation of the rights of girls and women raped in armed conflict under international humanitarian law. This is because the Geneva Conventions recognize that women and girls raped in armed conflict, as “protected persons”, are classified as “wounded and sick” and are entitled to “receive to the fullest extent practicable and with the least possible delay, the medical care and attention required by their condition.” Therefore, depriving these girls and women of this care is unlawful and this injustice is the driving force behind the Global Justice Center’s August 12th campaign.

Focusing in on eastern Burmese women, it is clear that they do not have a credible institution to turn to when it comes to reproductive healthcare. In fact, reproductive healthcare in Burma is known to be the worst in the world.  The “Separated by Borders” report, released by Ibis Reproductive Health and the Global Health Access program exposes the crippling healthcare infrastructure in eastern Burma.  The GJC has long noted the terrible state of eastern Burmese women when it comes to accessibility to reproductive health care and abortion, especially during conflict. The Global Justice Center is using legal tools to work diligently to help lift the “no abortion” clause in U.S humanitarian aid to make this type of care more accessible so women in order to prevent prolonged suffering.

Based on the Ibis Reproductive Health Report, RH Reality Check author Anna Clark notes the life-threatening repercussions of depriving Burmese women of reproductive services including unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions and death. Furthermore, 80 percent of women in eastern Burma have never used birth control due to the overall inaccessibility of contraceptives and the lack of legitimate healthcare.

Granting women in eastern Burma their rights, including access to reproductive healthcare will be a step in the right direction for Burma. Burmese women will not only be alleviated from suffering, but, they will also have the opportunity to become more active members of society. Utilizing the rule of law, the Global Justice Center works to dismantle the patriarchal structures inhibiting women’s rights to make sure that the prioritization of women’s health will be factored into the equation in the years to come.

To read more about this issue on RH Reality Check, click here and here.

To read the “Separated by Borders” report, click here.

To read more about the Global Justice Center’s August 12th Campaign, click here.