US Foreign Assistance Fails to Support the Reproductive Health Needs of Genocide Victims

In a groundbreaking move on March 17, Secretary of State Kerry accused Daesh — another name for the Islamic State — of committing acts of genocide against ethnic and religious groups in areas under its control, including Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims. Secretary Kerry’s statement cited numerous examples of genocidal conduct, specifically condemning Daesh’s campaign of sexual violence against women. He noted that thousands of Yezidi women and girls have been sold at auction and raped at will, and that Daesh forces Christian women and girls into sexual slavery. He also spoke out about the horrific rapes of Shia Turkmen women, often in front of their own families.

Sadly, Secretary Kerry’s powerful words came with strings attached: The Obama administration has chosen to prohibit the use of foreign assistance funds to support safe abortion services for rape victims who become pregnant and wish to terminate their pregnancies — including the victims of Daesh’s campaign of genocide.

Under a long-standing statutory provision and annual appropriations rider known as the Helms Amendment, US foreign-assistance funds may only be used to perform abortions that are not undertaken “as a method of family planning.” Under existing law, US funds may be used to pay for the performance of abortions in other circumstances, such as when a woman is raped. But President Obama has maintained the policy of his predecessors, and refuses to permit any US funding for abortion services — even for rape victims or women who need to terminate their pregnancies to save their lives.

President Obama’s decision to prevent rape victims and other women from accessing safe abortion services is a particularly puzzling departure from his otherwise strong record on reproductive rights. His administration has previously supported, for example, the use of federal funds to support safe abortion services for Peace Corps Volunteers who were raped or required a life-saving termination; that support helped overturn a 35-year-old ban in December 2014.

But when it comes to safe abortion services for women served by US foreign assistance, President Obama has maintained an absolutist position — no US funding for any abortions for any reason. Even former President George W. Bush noted that abortion as a “method of family planning … does not include abortions performed if the life of the mother would be endangered … or abortions performed following rape or incest (since abortion under these circumstances is not a family planning act).” It is perhaps unsurprising that President Bush never translated his words into action — despite his statement, he ultimately refused to permit foreign-assistance funds to support abortion services, even for rape victims. But President Bush’s hypocrisy is unsurprising in light of his open hostility towards abortion. What is inexplicable is why President Obama — who has in other instances been supportive of abortion rights — has doubled down on this indefensible — and inhumane — position.

The President’s stance is even more surprising in light of the fact that other major donor nations — including the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Norway — support safe abortion services alongside other essential reproductive health services. For example, Norway’s policy states that it will “support efforts to improve access to reproductive health services, including safe abortion … during and after situations of conflict and crisis.”

The gulf between the United States’ policy and those of other donor states came to a head last summer, when the United States’ human-rights record was reviewed in a UN process known as the Universal Periodic Review — a human-rights review that permits other nations to recommend policy changes to allow a state to improve its human-rights record.

During the May 2015 Universal Periodic Review of the United States, a number of allies asked about the refusal to provide safe abortion services to victims of sexual violence in conflict settings. The United Kingdom recommended that the United States “clarify its interpretation of the Helms Amendment in order to be able to provide safe abortion for rape survivors.” The Netherlands recommended that the US interpret the Helms Amendment “in such a way that U.S. foreign assistance enables safe abortion for women and girls who have been raped in conflict situations.” And Belgium and Norway submitted similar recommendations.

In the weeks leading up to the formal US response, hopes were high that the government might use the Universal Periodic Review recommendations from some of our closest allies as a catalyst for change. These hopes were buoyed when, in late August, Secretary of State Kerry and his United Kingdom counterpart, Philip Hammond, penned a joint op-ed in The Guardian with the provocative title, “How Can We Call Ourselves Civilised While Women are the Victims of Barbarity?” In it, the two men called the mass rapes committed by Daesh and Boko Haram a “stain on the conscience of the world,” and were united in decrying the “double damage” of abuse and shaming that often follows sexual violence. Perhaps Kerry and Hammond were signaling unity about addressing all of the needs of victims of sexual violence, including reproductive health.

Only two days after the op-ed was published, the Obama administration, acting through the State Department, rejected all of the recommendations urging the US to support safe abortion services to the victims of sexual violence in conflict settings, including those of the United Kingdom, out of hand and without explanation. It only deigned to agree in “principle” with a French recommendation on addressing the needs of victims of sexual violence in conflict situations — and only then, presumably, because the French recommendation did not explicitly reference abortion.

The retrograde US position rejecting rape victims’ access to abortion is not merely at odds with other major donors, but also with the international community. In December 2015, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling on governments to ensure that “women and girls have access to the full range of sexual and reproductive health services, including safe abortions, in humanitarian crises,” and the United Nations Security Council has noted “the need for access to the full range of sexual and reproductive health services, including regarding pregnancies resulting from rape, without discrimination.”

Of course, the victims of sexual violence in conflict settings need access to a whole host of services, including a broad spectrum of medical, psychosocial, and economic assistance. But to withhold the option of safe termination to women who have been brutally raped and impregnated is cruel and inhuman, and ultimately, an unconscionable betrayal of America’s values. The waning days of the Obama presidency provide the opportunity to change course, and to allow the next president to take office and focus on providing all the necessary humanitarian relief — including the full spectrum of reproductive health options. 

About the Author(s)

Aram Schvey

Senior Policy Counsel and Manager of Special Projects at the Center for Reproductive Rights