Time for U.S. to Support Abortion for Rape Victims in Other Countries

There’s been global progress in expanding reproductive rights for women but a 40-year-old U.S. law continues to hurt women in foreign countries

When world leaders gathered for the United Nations General Assembly recently, women’s empowerment took center stage. Countries all over the world reiterated their commitment to ensuring that all women and young people have the information and resources to decide their own future — and made clear that reproductive health and rights is central in this commitment.

These declarations — from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to South African Health Ministers to actress Emma Watson — marked exciting progress. The historic focus on women at the UN General Assembly coincides with a growing global consensus to expand access to safe and legal abortion, with recent changes to laws in Columbia, Kenya, Ethiopia and Nepal.

But the more progress we see from other countries, the clearer it is that the U.S. needs to end a 40-year-old policy that blocks women in other countries from accessing abortion.

This law, known as the Helms Amendment [named after its sponsor, North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms], prevents U.S. global health programs from supporting abortion “as a method of family planning.” Since the law’s inception in 1973, the U.S. government has made a bad situation worse by wrongly implementing the Helms Amendment as a total ban on abortion — even in cases of incest, rape, and life endangerment.

As a result, women in desperate situations around the world are denied a health care procedure that’s legal in their countries and in ours. Women are consequently more likely to subject themselves to unsafe abortions or continue pregnancies against their will.

This administration didn't create the Helms Amendment. But they have the power to reduce the harm it does around the world by changing how the policy is implemented — so that it is no longer applied in circumstances that go well beyond the scope of the law.

At Planned Parenthood we are proud to stand with a broad and diverse coalition of groups calling for urgent action on this issue. Many of us see the consequences of this policy firsthand and know what a change would mean to women around the world.

President Obama has been a strong and powerful champion for women’s health care. He has done more than any president in our lifetime to advance women’s access to birth control and lifesaving cancer screenings, and he is a fierce defender of women’s access to safe and legal abortion in the U.S. We are proud to have a president who has shown true leadership in improving women’s health care. But there is more work that must be done.

Rape continues to be prevalent worldwide, particularly in areas of conflict and crisis. In some countries, 70 percent of women are subjected to violence, and rape often is used as a weapon of war and as a tool to silence women. Girls who are raped often must give up school and become mothers even when they are still children themselves.

These are the girls and women who suffer further because the Helms Amendment is being interpreted to block access to abortion in all cases. And they are the girls and women who will benefit from an immediate change to how the policy is implemented.

Ultimately, we must get rid of the Helms Amendment entirely, which will require congressional action. In the meantime, the administration should take an important step to resolve this crisis today by implementing the policy correctly. We can’t wait to help women who have been raped or been the victims of incest, and those facing life-threatening pregnancies. For women around the world, the stakes are too high.

Cecile Richards is president of Planned Parenthood Federal of America and Planned Parenthood Action Fund.