In 1973, Jesse Helms, a newly elected United States senator and an ideologue contemptuous of the United Nations, dismissive of international treaties and completely devoid of compassion for the world’s poor, put his name on an amendment to the landmark 1961 United States foreign assistance act banning any use of US funds to support abortion in family planning globally. Over more than four decades, the Helms amendment has been reinterpreted, reinforced, and expanded in American aid policy to the point of rising to a violation of internationally recognized rights of women.
An international campaign is now urgently demanding that the United States put an end to this policy, saying that the Helms amendment defies the Geneva Conventions on the rules of war, which the US has pledged to uphold since the 1950s. The US is effectively violating the universally accepted nondiscriminatory healthcare provision in the conventions by forcing its prohibitions on abortion on medical aid work by others in conflict areas. In an age of unconventional warfare and terrorism, thousands of women suffer and die as a consequence of rape and other sexual abuses. Those who survive need a lot of help to repair their battered bodies—and sometimes that includes abortion.
On July 7 the Global Justice Center in New York, which advocates for the enforcement of international laws on human rights and gender equality, sent a letter to President Barack Obama on behalf of more than 50 international organizations asking for executive action to nullify the effects of the Helms amendment and honor the Geneva Conventions, which demand nondiscriminatory medical treatment in war zones.
“The US abortion ban is a major reason that female war rape victims around the world are being denied abortions in humanitarian medical facilities,” the letter said. “This is a matter of utmost urgency as recently demonstrated by the use of rape and forced impregnation by extremist groups such as ISIL and Boko Haram as tactics of warfare to further their ideological goals.”
Other civil society, legal, faith-based, human rights, and development organizations in the United States and abroad have sent similar letters. In Congress, several senators have been active in opposing the abortion bans and related restrictions. They include Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire, and Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont.
Janet Benshoof, the president and founder of the Global Justice Center, said in an interview that Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions entitles all victims, including civilian rape victims in war zones, to nondiscriminatory medical care of all kinds. By barring abortion for rape victims in conflict areas, where rape or forced impregnation are acts of war and war crimes, the US position is universally considered discriminatory. “The Geneva Conventions have their own medical protocols that nobody questions as absolute law,” Benshoof, adding that these protocols override local laws and restrictions in conflict areas. “That is probably the most fundamental international law.”
In May, when the United States submitted its human rights record in a periodic review at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, it met renewed criticism from friendly European countries confounded by the American rejection of internationally accepted women’s reproductive health rights, enshrined most recently by the groundbreaking decisions of the International Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo in 1994, which the US supported. The Helms amendment, or the misinterpretation of its original intent in addressing family planning, was specifically mentioned by delegates who wanted want to know why American restrictions abroad are tougher than laws governing abortion in the United States.