How Seven Words Deny Abortions to Women Raped in War

At times it can feel like the U.S. is in the Dark Ages when it comes to a woman’s right to choose, but the situation is actually much worse than most people know. We’re so bad in fact, that we don’t just stop at obstructing the right to abortion access within the U.S., we also deny it to thousands of women and girls all over the world—even victims of war rape. Here at home, there is plenty of blame to go around, from disproportionately vocal anti-choice groups, to state legislators, to idle beneficiaries of patriarchy. For girls and women overseas, however, the obstacle to access is much more singular: President Obama.

Congress passed the Helms Amendment in 1973, a law saying that American foreign aid could not be used to “fund abortions as a method of family planning.” Traditionally, the wording “abortion as a method of family planning” was read by lawyers to mean that abortions were permitted where the life of the woman was at risk, or where the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest. Enter George W. Bush, whose administration formally reinterpreted the phrase to mean “no abortions for anyone, ever.”

That single decision—the reinterpretation of seven words—has meant that the U.S. does not fund or provide abortions in humanitarian settings for victims of war rape. President Obama could easily undo this decision by issuing his own interpretation that would restore those seven words to their original meaning. But he hasn’t—Obama has left Bush’s abortion restrictions in place.

Far more than being a moral outrage, this policy actually violates international law. U.S. law and policy do not operate in a vacuum; they are wrapped up in a web of highly respected and fundamental international treaties and legal norms that dictate what it is we can and cannot do—especially when it relates to victims of war.

Take, for example, the Geneva Conventions—a series of treaties passed after World War II that established special protections for war victims. Under the Conventions, rape victims have a right to all the medical care they need, as well as a right to be free from discrimination. The current U.S. policy denies both these rights by excluding a necessary medical service that is needed only by women. If a man is raped in war, he will receive whichever treatments he needs. When a woman or a girl is raped in war, she will receive whichever medical treatments she needs—except one.

Some people defend the policy, claiming that providing abortions would violate local law and put doctors at risk. But, as if written with abortion in mind, the Geneva Conventions replace national laws during war, meaning that local abortion restrictions do not apply. The Conventions actually state that doctors treating war victims cannot be forced to exclude specific treatments needed by their patients.

The U.S. policy violates international law in another way: torture. At least two human rights committees at the United Nations have found that the mental and physical harm that comes with denying abortions for rape victims amounts to torture. This is not like waterboarding or other types of torture Americans may be used to hearing about, this is grounded in discrimination: only women must continue medically dangerous or unwanted pregnancies; only women suffer the mental agony and physical trauma of unsafe abortions; only women have to risk their lives because of the intentional absence of a medical procedure—to which they have a right.

That the Obama administration has left the policy in place is not an error of ignorance. Our closest allies have come out against the policy, including the United Kingdom, France, and the European Union. Even the UN Secretary-General and the Security Council (of which the U.S. is a member) have said that the Geneva Conventions require abortion access for war rape victims. Some countries have even gone so far as to specifically recommend to the U.S. that we change this unlawful policy.

Still, it remains. Despite using executive action more than any other modern President and despite his campaign promise of change, Obama has denied war rape victims the medical care they need. This simply cannot continue. Short of getting rid of the Helms Amendment entirely—which would require an act of Congress—the biggest step toward justice Obama could take would be reinterpreting those seven words.

Obama must take action. He must lift the ban. He must fix Bush’s interpretation of the Helms Amendment and deliver on the rights guaranteed to victims of war rape. Doing so would not only correct an obvious wrong but also start a long overdue conversation about including women in the dignity of justice and the promise of equal treatment.