The Case for Safe Abortions for Refugee Women

As Congress continues to consider this year’s federal funding, we can urge our elected officials to appropriate more money for international sexual and reproductive healthcare.

Ethiopian refugees who fled fighting in Tigray province wait to receive prenatal medical care at the Um Raquba camp in Sudan’s eastern Gedaref state on Nov. 21, 2020. (Ashraf Shazly / AFP via Getty Images)

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson, which eliminated the constitutional right to abortion, nearly half of the states in the U.S. have limited or banned abortion. These states experience higher rates of maternal and infant death. Women in states that limit the right to abortion live with greater economic insecurity than women living in states where abortion is protected.

As dire as this reality is for U.S. women, imagine being a woman who is a refugee.

For a woman or girl forced from her home and community, living in a tent camp or in a crowded city far from every place she knows and everyone she trusts, sexual and reproductive health services are critical, but often unavailable. The result is high levels of unintended pregnancy, pregnancy complications, disease, disability, and maternal and infant death. People who are LGBTQIA+ often face even greater obstacles to accessing the care they need.

This week, on the eve of International Women’s Day, President Biden will deliver his State of the Union address. Kate Cox, a Texas woman denied access to abortion to terminate an unviable pregnancy that threatened her health, will attend as First Lady Jill Biden’s guest. Cox was able to travel to another state to access a safe abortion. While she should never have been put in that position in the first place, thankfully, she was able to get care.

Globally, options for women who are refugees are often significantly more limited. That’s why Congress must provide increased funding for international family planning programs, without any new restrictions.

Last year, U.S. funding for international family planning prevented 8 million unplanned pregnancies and 14,000 maternal deaths. UNFPA, the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency, is a critical service provider for communities affected by crises. Working in places like Afghanistan, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine and Gaza, it can be among the very few options displaced women have for accessing care.

In 2017, the prior administration froze all contributions to UNFPA, resulting in a drastic decrease in funding and undermining U.S. leadership in global health and human rights. The funding has since been reinstated, but the needs are enormous and growing, and more funding means more lives saved.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, and the resilience and strength of women, we must acknowledge that the attack on women’s bodily autonomy knows no borders. For 30 years, U.S. presidents have had the authority to prevent foreign nonprofit organizations that receive any U.S. funding from using their own funds to provide abortion information, counseling, referrals, advocacy or services. The global gag rule (also known as the Mexico City Policy) prevents women from accessing information and care. Congress must pass the Global Health, Empowerment and Rights Act (the Global “HER” Act), which would keep future presidents from reinstating this rule.

In crises around the world, women are doing what they can to support each other. They are not waiting for our help, but they could use our support. We know from our work in Nigeria, Mozambique and Bangladesh that from the start of an emergency—a war, a natural disaster or climate change—through the period of recovery, women need access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive healthcare, including family planning, adequate reproductive healthcare supplies and services and safe abortion and post-abortion care.

As Congress continues to consider this year’s federal funding, we can urge our elected officials to appropriate more money for international sexual and reproductive healthcare. As we continue to be strong advocates for reproductive freedom at home, we can use our voices to help women who are displaced by violence, conflict, and disaster break through the enormous barriers to their sexual and reproductive health and freedom—no matter who they are, or where they live.

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Melanie Nezer is the vice president for advocacy and external relations at the Women’s Refugee Commission, a nongovernmental organization that works to improve the lives and protect the rights of women, children, and youth displaced by conflict and crisis. She has more than 25 years of experience in the global refugee and humanitarian field.