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.


Global Justice Center at the NYC Women's March

Global Justice Center at the Women's March in DC

Eliminate the Chilling Effect

A Hindrance on Abortions to Rape Victims

by Eva Marie Wüst Vestergaard

US abortion restrictions constrain abortion speech and services around the world. Under a Trump administration, it is likely these restrictions will be expanded, causing confusion for providers and harming women raped in war.

For the past six years, the Global Justice Center has worked to lift the US abortion ban on foreign aid. The Helms Amendment stipulates that US funding cannot be used for any kind of abortion speech and services. However, this does not constrain foreign organizations from using other funding for abortion activities as long as their funding is segregated. This latitude is not well known and in the aftermath of the US election, it is now also imperilled.

The Mexico City Policy or the Global Gag Rule (GGR), imposed by Reagan, requires that foreign organizations receiving US funds for family planning activities cannot perform nor actively promote abortion as a method of family planning. Foreign organizations under GGR are allowed to spend other funding for abortion speech and services in the cases of rape, incest, or if the “mother’s life would be endangered if the fetus were carried to term”, as these are not methods of family planning.

The GGR has continuously been rescinded under democratic presidencies and reinstated under republican presidencies. It was rescinded by President Obama eight years ago and will most likely be reinstated by Trump. When the GGR is reinstated it produces a “chilling effect” on providers of abortion services around the world.

The chilling effect refers to the fact that US abortion restrictions are so complicated and incomprehensible that providers avoid any activity on abortion as a preventive measure to avoid the risk of losing funding. It is, for example, a common misconception that the Helms amendment is a total ban on abortion speech and services, whilst the ban only covers US funding, not alternative segregated funding.

Should a reinstatement of the GGR become a reality, foreign organizations may be likely to disregard abortion services in spite of having autonomy to provide them to rape victims and other cases that are not defined as family planning. Therefore, it is vital to be fully informed of what these restrictions entail, be wary of misconceptions, and eliminate the chilling effect that hinders raped women’s right to abortion around the world.

OMCT & GJC Report to CAT: Sri Lankan laws condone torture of women and girls

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE—November 14, 2016

[NEW YORK and GEVENA (OMCT-GJC)] — Tomorrow, the Committee Against Torture (CAT), during its 59th session, will examine Sri Lanka’s fifth State party report. In October, the Global Justice Center (GJC) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) jointly submitted an alternative report focused on how Sri Lankan law violates the Convention Against Torture by banning abortion in most circumstances, and by authorizing rape in certain instances and child marriage.

Denial of Abortion Services to Women Raped in War is Torture

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.

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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.

Growing Consensus in International Community 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.

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.

Sign the petition.

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.