Abortion Helms Amendment

Respect Rape Victims’ Right to Abortions in Syria

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 Websitea 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.

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43 years later, “Senator No” still impacting the lives of women and girls around the world.

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.

Join GJC on 6 Days of Action

Today, on the 67th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions, GJC kicks off 6 Days of Action on Helms, calling on President Obama to lift the abortion ban on women raped in war. 

To join, check out GJC's Social Media Toolkit here.

GJC Published in Newsweek on Anniversary of Sinjar Massacre

Grant Shubin, a Staff Attorney at GJC, and Pari Ibrahim, the Founder and Executive Director of the Free Yazidi Foundation published an op-ed in Newsweek about the state of Yazidi women on the second anniversary of the Sinjar Massacre.

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.

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.

Making IHL Work For Women and Girls

The World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) has admirably taken on the task of rethinking and retooling humanitarian action to meet the challenges facing the world today. In modern conflicts, the increased targeting of civilians, including the strategic use of sexual violence as a tactic of war, means that humanitarian action must be tailored to respond to victims’ distinct needs. In other words, because humanitarian needs in conflict are specific, we need specific and relevant ways to respond to them.

Importantly, this response must be grounded in the rights of war victims under International Humanitarian Law (“IHL” or the laws of war). This includes comprehensive and non-discriminatory medical care, psychosocial, legal, and livelihood support, and other multi-sectoral services for survivors of sexual violence.

However, while the nature and face of modern conflict has changed, the laws of war have remained mired in the antiquated models of warfare they were derived from; men fighting men on defined battlefields. In the context of modern humanitarian action, where civilians constitute over 90% of those affected by war and where women and girls are often specifically targeted, this has meant that women and girls are left behind.

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EU Finalizes Divorce From US Abortion Ban

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE -  February 24, 2016

[NEW YORK, NY]– Today, the EU adopted its 2016 budget containing the first ever anti-Helms Amendment. The US Helms amendment currently imposes an abortion ban on all US foreign aid, including support for girls and women raped in armed conflict.

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.

Listen to Akila Radhakrishnan Participate in Reproaction’s Act and Learn Webinar on Helms

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.

Listen here.