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Growing International Consensus that US Must Lift Abortion Ban

by Liz Olson

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

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

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

In October 2013, the United Nations passed the trailblazing Security Council Resolution 2122, which noted that women must be provided with “access to the full range of sexual and reproductive health services, including regarding pregnancies resulting from rape, without discrimination.”

Half a year later, at the 7160th meeting of the UN Security Council, representatives from both France and the Netherlands spoke out against the denial of abortion services to women raped in conflict zones. Mr. Gérard Araud, Representative of France, stated that the refusal to provide abortion services to women raped in war zones is a violation of international humanitarian law, and represents discrimination in the provision of medical services. He stressed, “Such discrimination, which adds a terrible injustice to women who have been the victims of sexual violence, must be brought to an end.” H.E. Mr. Karel van Oosterom, Representative of the Netherlands, voiced his agreement with the French Representative’s remarks, adding that “to withhold such services to victims of sexual violence is to add insult to injury.”

In June 2014, the United Kingdom cited the 2013 UN Security Council Resolution 2122 in the Department of International Development’s  Strategy Document on Safe and Unsafe Abortion. The document concluded that, “It is the UK’s view that in situations of armed conflict or occupation where denial of abortion threatens the woman’s or girl’s life or causes unbearable suffering, international humanitarian law principles may justify offering a safe abortion rather than perpetuating what amounts to inhumane treatment in the form of an act of cruel treatment or torture.”A close US ally, the United Kingdom’s implicit rejection of US abortion restrictions in conflict zones and the characterization of such restrictions as “cruel treatment or torture” marked an increasing tide change for abortion funding in war zones.

During the Universal Periodic Review in May 2015, five countries (the Netherlands, United Kingdom, Belgium, Norway and France) challenged the US’s abortion restrictions on international humanitarian aid and recommended that the US take action to “remove restrictions on abortion for US foreign assistance to permit its use for safe abortion in cases of rape.”

In February 2016, the EU Budget was released with language that requires that all humanitarian groups who receive funding from the EU provide assistance “in accordance with international humanitarian law”, without “discrimination or adverse distinction.” Since many international humanitarian aid organizations receive funding from both the US and EU, this directly challenges the restrictions put in place by the Helms Amendment. To drive this point home, the Budget stressed that EU funds must “not be subject to restrictions imposed by other partner donors,” in reference to the Helms Amendment.

Sophie in ‘t Veld, the European Parliament Member from the Netherlands who proposed this budget language, explained, “The EU is taking steps to ensure that EU humanitarian aid funds are not tainted by other donor countries, like the abortion ban on US funds.” She argued, “to force a girl enslaved by ISIS, kidnapped by Boko Haram or raped in the DRC to bear a child of her rapist and as a result [be] expelled from the community and condemned to poverty, is inhumane treatment. Sexual violence is a devastating weapon in the war-torn areas, these women and girls are war wounded and should be treated equally.”

In light of this mounting international consensus, the Obama Administration should issue an executive order to lift this abortion ban. The current policy is discriminatory, cruel, and illegal. It adds to the suffering of women and girls who have suffered too much already. Join the Global Justice Center and sign our petition to ask President Obama to lift the ban.