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CFC in the News - 2015

Faith and Human Rights Leaders Call on Obama Administration to Fund Abortions for Rape Victims


Melanie Fonder Kaye

4 June 2015

Across the street from the White House at St. John's Episcopal Church, a coalition of faith and human rights leaders today called on President Barack Obama to take executive action so women and girls raped in conflict have access to abortions. The move comes on the heels of recent high-profile stories of global rape victims by the Islamic State in Syria (ISIS) and Boko Haram in Nigeria, including the women recently rescued from Boko Haram who are pregnant.

"Right now, we are seeing a humanitarian disaster unfold — women and girls who are escaping or returning from captivity from Boko Haram and ISIS," said Serra Sippel, president of the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE). "Right now, President Obama is failing to stand with women and girls raped in conflict. We call on him to act today."

Following a morning-long meeting of members of the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Unitarian Universalist faith communities, and human rights advocates, the coalition released a resolution calling on President Obama to take swift executive action on the Helms amendment because "access to safe abortion is a vital component of the standard of care and compassions" for women and girls to receive complete post-rape medical and mental health care. The resolution concludes that "President Obama has spoken compassionately about women and girls raped in war and conflict, but has failed to act on that compassion."

The Helms amendment — originally sponsored by the late Republican U.S. Senator Jesse Helms — is a 1973 provision that prohibits U.S. funds from being used overseas for the "performance of abortion as a method of family planning." But Rev. Henry Knox, president and chief executive office of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), said today that in cases of rape or incest, "abortion is clearly not family planning."

"Rape is a tool of war, and in the midst of that hell, women and girls who have survived atrocities deserve access to comprehensive post-rape care, including access to compassionate abortion," Knox said, adding that the coalition would hand-deliver the resolution to the White House this afternoon.

Jaqueline Mutere described her own experience after she was raped in 2007 during post-election violence in Kenya. "I was raped mid-January, and by the following month, I discovered I was pregnant. I tried three times unsuccessfully to have an abortion," Mutere said.

After safely delivering in a hospital and recovering, she later founded Grace Agenda, a Nairobi-based organization that helps victims access post-rape care. She said many of the women she now helps suffer from infections and other health-related issues that would not be the case if they had had access to safe abortion following their trauma.

"By access I mean that there be a choice — they are able to access the information, they are able to access the service," Mutere said.

Sara Ratcliffe, the domestic program director for Catholics for Choice, said the Helms amendment "unnecessarily ties the hands of agencies receiving U.S. aid from providing critical care to the women they serve" and that taxpayer dollars should be used for women who need critical health care services "no matter where she lives, how much money she has in her pocket or where and from whom she receives care."

Sippel said that while the coalition leaders ultimately want to see the Helms amendment repealed, which would take an act of Congress, the president could take executive action immediately. "It would take just a swipe of the presidential pen to break barriers to abortion care for women and girls globally," she said "Failure to stand with women and girls raped in conflict is unconscionable."

Sippel noted that while President Obama has been outspoken about the issue of rape as a weapon of war, and that strides have been made under his administration through efforts like the National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security and the U.S. Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-based Violence Globally, his policies have not matched his rhetoric.

"We want his policies to match the compassion that he has expressed to the world, and right now, that's not the case," Sippel said.

Globally, 1 out of 3 women will face gender-based violence in her lifetime, according to the United States Agency for International Development — with some countries seeing rates of abuse at 70 percent.

"Vulnerable women and girls in some of the poorest parts of the world deserve and desperately need this inaction to end," Ratcliffe said. "It is the right thing to do, it is the just thing to do, and, Mr. President, it is long beyond time to take action."

This piece was originally published by Cosmopolitan.