The president should clarify ‘Helms’ law to allow abortions for wars’ rape victims

By Brian Atwood and Peter Fenn, Published: February 13

Brian Atwood is chairman of global studies at the University of Minnesota’sHumphrey School of Public Affairs. He was administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development during the Clinton administration. Peter Fenn, a longtime Democratic political strategist, was a top aide to Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) from 1975 to 1981.

An 18-year-old Free Syrian Army soldier was jailed in the fall of 2012, and Syrian government troops brought his fiancee, sisters, mother and female neighbors to the prison. But this wasn’t a regular visitation, according to Women Under Siege, a group affiliated with the Women’s Media Center. Each of these women was raped in front of the prisoner.

Sexual violence is a primary reason women and girls are fleeing Syria, according to theInternational Rescue Committee. It is not new for rape to be used as a weapon of war, nor for pregnancies to result from those rapes. As many as 50,000 women and girls were raped in Bosnia; more than 250,000 were raped in Rwanda. Reports from the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan indicate that rape is increasingly being used as a weapon in those war zones. This horrific act is designed to terrorize and paralyze whole segments of society.

And often, U.S. aid workers can only turn their backs when pregnant rape victims ask for help, because they are subject to a directive that prohibits providing comprehensive health services.

How did it come to pass that the United States, one of the world’s most generous providers of humanitarian assistance, would constrain its response to this gross violation of human rights? The answer lies in the morass of U.S. social-issue politics. So does the solution: In the midst of the decades-long disputes over abortion, a compromise was reached on exceptions that should apply equally to humanitarian operations.

The 1973 “Helms amendment” restricts the use of U.S. foreign assistance funds for abortions “as a method of family planning or to motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions.” The consequence of rape has nothing to do with family planning, as numerous legal experts outside government have rightly concluded. Historical and current political compromises have established three exceptions — rape, incest and life-endangerment — as cases in which U.S. taxpayer funds can be spent on abortion.

An executive order is needed to set the record straight: that what is done in humanitarian operations overseas is in line with the exceptions embodied in U.S. law.

The president has the authority to correct a long-standing misinterpretation of the Helms amendment. He should do so with full confidence that Americans would strongly support this action.

A national poll conducted last month by Lake Research Partners for the Center for Health and Gender Equity found that Americans overwhelmingly support such an executive order. Fifty-seven percent of respondents agreed that the president “should issue an executive order to allow foreign assistance to support comprehensive health care, including safe abortions for women in the cases of rape, incest, and when a woman’s life is in danger.”

Seventy-one percent agreed that abortion should be allowed in cases in which a pregnancy is a result of rape. Only 21 percent disagreed.

Thousands of rape victims die each year — in desperation, they seek to escape their trauma using dangerous means. Simply by applying a law correctly, the United States could join a growing number of donors responding to this pandemic. The shift would require no new law, only a presidential clarification that would allow government resources to be used when women request to end a pregnancy in cases of rape, incest or life endangerment.

This fundamental human rights issue can no longer be ignored. It deserves a presidential declaration that will right a long-standing wrong.

The president should correct a misinterpretation of the Helms amendment that apparently was based on avoiding a threat to family planning that no longer exists. It should be U.S. government policy to support the victims of one of the harshest war crimes imaginable.