January 17, 2012 – 10:23pm

It’s been almost three years since President Obama repealed the global gag rule, one of the most ludicrous and paternalistic U.S. foreign policies in history. But as we celebrate the anniversary of its repeal, just one day after the anniversary of Roe v. Wade on January 22nd, another matter deserves our attention.

The last stronghold of America’s oppressive overseas reproductive health policies, the Helms Amendment, is still alive and well. The 1973 amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act restricts U.S. funding for abortion overseas – even in countries where abortion is legal. Specifically, it states:

“No foreign assistance funds may be used to pay for the performance of abortion as a method of family planning or to motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions.”

The Helms Amendment invented what the global gag rule caricatured: a foreign policy that explicitly intrudes on the lives of women in developing countries, singling out and stigmatizing ‘abortion’ from the continuum of reproductive care necessary for a healthy life. Yet we’ve heard relatively little of this “grandfather” of anti-choice policies over the past 40 years, and all the while its colonial specter has continued to haunt the United State’s legacy of global reproductive rights.

Some are now aruging publicly for change. In late-December, 12 Members of Congress, including Representatives Lois Capps, Pete Stark, and Jan Schakowsky,  sent a letter to President Obama  asking for a formal review of the policy for the first time in history.

“We are concerned that the Helms Amendment – which restricts but does not prohibit abortion funding – is being implemented as though it were an absolute ban,” the letter stated.

The letter is a first step toward addressing a policy that has undermine the rights and health of women throughout the world for far too long.

Although Helms prohibits U.S. aid from directly supporting abortion services, it is supposed to allow for the provision of abortion counseling and referrals, post-abortion care, and abortion in cases of rape, incest, and danger to the life of the woman. Years of careful tracking and documentation work on the part of reproductive rights groups, spearheaded by Ipas and the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) have produced clear evidence that in reality, these exceptions exist in theory but not in practice.

“Despite provisions allowing foreign-assistance funding for abortion services under certain circumstances, for almost 40 years the Helms Amendment has been implemented improperly as a total ban on all abortions,” CRR said in a statement released last month.

If this sounds eerily familiar, it should. While the gag rule has been officially rescinded, it seems the Helms Amendment has continued to function in effectively the same way. Primarily due to the clumsy wording of the amendment (what constitutes “abortion as a method of family planning” and what counts as “motivating” abortion?), and the long history of the use of women’s rights to full reproductive health care as a political football, application of the policy in-country among aid workers and recipients has veered drastically toward banning and self-censorship. Ipas and CRR, along with a small group of legislators, are asking President Obama to issue clarifying guidance to ensure the proper implementation of the policy.

The groups suggest that the Helms Amendment has contributed to an overall environment of censorship, stigma, and misinformation around abortion, resulting in barriers to services and consequent deaths and injuries. For example, Nepal’s abortion law was liberalized in 2002. Yet Ipas found that despite this, and even after the repeal of the global gag rule, abortion was omitted entirely from formal USAID trainings, discussions, and manuals, and abortion groups were informally excluded from partner meetings on national reproductive health strategies.

As abortion is singled out, reproductive health services become fragmented, drastically reducing the likelihood that women will receive these services at all even under “legal” circumstances. The situation is not likely to be much better in any other country receiving U.S. international assistance, including countries where rape is being regularly employed as a weapon of war. This is disturbing when you consider that global aid funding is supposed to “help” in the most fundamental way, not harm. Unsafe abortion remains a leading cause of maternal mortality in the developing world, and that is clearly thanks in part to the Helms Amendment.

This seems to be something that everyone should care about. That the Helms Amendment exists in the first place should incite reproductive (and human) rights advocates – it is ties assistance to an ideology that flouts medical and scientific evidence and the reality of women’s lives. It should further incite us that this policy is being twisted to create additional obstacles for women in some of the most vulnerable places in the world. Yet the Helms Amendment remains a policy largely un-touched by pro-choice groups and rarely covered in the media.

The Hyde Amendment, which is basically the domestic version of the Helms Amendment, turned 35 just months ago, an anniversary that provided an opportunity to highlight the unjust, classist, and oppressive nature of a policy that most deeply affects low-income women in the United States. The coverage was terrific and widespread, delving into the history and implications of the policy, and even providing a helpful framework of lessons for activists.  Yet in all this, Helms was barely mentioned.

This is disappointing and problematic, because the two are so intimately connected. The Congressional letter to President Obama begins, “We are Members of Congress committed to reproductive rights at home and abroad…”. That line, at home and abroad, is pivotal. These policies do not exist in a vacuum, and neither do the anti-woman ideologies propelling them and keeping them in place. Their inceptions were related and if advocates are to successfully repeal them, those efforts, too, may have to be related.

Recent efforts to drag the Helms Amendment into the light come at a critical time.  Last month, the administration announced an historic National Plan of Action on Women, Peace, and Security, an executive order that puts women at the center of U.S. foreign policy. President Obama has talked the talk, now he is being asked to walk the walk. The president can ask the relevant agencies to review their policies and make guidance on the Helms Amendment and its exceptions crystal clear. He can issue an executive order ensuring that funding streams are not burdened by overly broad interpretations of an already-heninous law. The decision is in the Administration’s hands.  It is too soon to know what the outcome will be, but it seems at least the wheels may be starting to turn.

Follow Jessica Mack on Twitter, @fleetwoodjmack

by Jodi Jacobson, Editor-in-Chief, RH Reality Check

September 21, 2011 – 6:55pm

Today, the Senate Appropriations Committee adopted an amendment to the FY 2012 State Department and foreign operations appropriations bill that, if signed into law, would block re-imposition of the Global Gag Rule.  The amendment was introduced by Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), and would prohibit future Presidents from using executive orders to refuse funding to a foreign organization solely because of the legal medical services it provides; the information, counseling, and referrals it offers; or the advocacy it engages in with its own government—using its own non-U.S. funds.

The Foreign Ops bill provides funding for the U.S. diplomatic corps and development, health, and humanitarian assistance programs of the U.S. government. In it, the committee also approved funding for international reproductive health programs and the U.S. contribution to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

A parallel bill in the House of Representatives approved in committee this summer cuts international family planning funding by 25 percent from current levels, reinstates the Global Gag Rule, and includes a blanket prohibition on U.S. funding to UNFPA.

The current Senate bill includes $700 million for family planning programs, $239 million more than the House bill and $85 million above current funding levels.

According to Population Action International, today’s markup “puts the Senate on record rejecting the House version and sets the stage for a showdown over the final FY 2012 appropriations bill to be negotiated later this year.”

In response to passage of the bill in committee, Lautenberg stated:

“Today we have taken an important step toward permanently ending the global gag rule and protecting access to family planning services for women around the world.  The United States is an international leader for women’s rights, and we must rule out any possibility that this dangerous and harmful policy could return.”

Neither bill is expected to reach a floor vote. Instead, advocates expect that appropriations bills funding the entirety of the federal government will be rolled together into one omnibus or several “minibus” spending bills to be considered later in the year.

The Lautenberg Global Gag Rule amendment was adopted on a largely party-line vote of 18 to 12. All Democrats on the committee, except Senator Nelson (D-NE), voted in favor of the bill. They were joined by three Republicans—Senators Collins (R-ME), Murkowski (R-AK), and Kirk (R-IL)—supporting the amendment.

Senators Collins (R-ME), Feinstein (D-CA), Murray (D-WA), Mikulski (D-MD), and Tester (D-MT) co-sponsored this amendment with Senator Lautenberg (D-NJ).

 

Source: Global Justice Center

03/08/2011

Global Justice Center launches “August 12 Campaign” to mark the 62nd Anniversary of the Geneva Conventions by urging President Obama to issue an executive order lifting U.S. abortion restrictions on humanitarian aid for girls and women raped in armed conflict

Thousands of girls and women raped and impregnated in armed conflict are routinely denied critically needed abortions in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burma and Sudan, despite hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid made available to victims in conflict. These victims are denied abortions for myriad reasons, but one major reason is the blanket abortion restrictions the US places on all its foreign assistance, including humanitarian aid. These US restrictions contain no exceptions for rape or to save the life of the woman and have the effect of preventing all foreign governments, NGOs and humanitarian aid providers receiving US funds from providing the option of abortions to girls and women raped in armed conflict.

In the context of armed conflict, this policy is at odds with the rights of girls and women raped in armed conflict to non-discriminatory medical care as guaranteed by international humanitarian law, in particular the Geneva Conventions. The legal basis for this argument can be found in the GJC legal brief “The right to an abortion for girls and women raped in armed conflict – States’ positive obligations to provide non-discriminatory medical care under the Geneva Conventions.” A PDF of this brief can be found by clicking here.

These overly-broad constraints and the effect they have on the distribution of humanitarian aid from countries other than the US have not gone unnoticed amidst the global community. On November 5, 2011 during the Universal Periodic Review of the United States by the UN Human Rights Council, Norway recommended that the US “remove its blanket abortion restrictions on humanitarian aid covering medical care given to women and girls raped and impregnated in situations of armed conflict.” Furthermore, on March 4, 2011 the Association of the Bar of New York City, on behalf of approximately 22,000 members, wrote to President Obama urging the Administration to lift the abortion prohibitions put on all US humanitarian aid for women and girls survivors of rape in conflict.

In commemoration of the 62nd anniversary of the Geneva Conventions the Global Justice Center is coordinating an international “August 12th Campaign” encouraging key organizations and individuals around the world to send letters to President Obama, asking that he lift the abortion restrictions on humanitarian aid for girls and women raped in armed conflict via an Executive Order.

For more information on these restrictions and the August 12th Campaign please click here.

If you or your organization would like to join please contact Sarah Morison smorison@globaljusticecenter.net Tel: 212-725-6530 Ext. 209

July 28, 2011 — The House Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign operations on Wednesday approved by voice vote a measure that would cut many U.S. foreign aid programs and reinstate the “global gag rule,” which blocks federal funds to international family planning groups that use their own funds to perform abortions or offer abortion information, the Washington Post‘s “Checkpoint Washington” reports (Warrick/Sheridan, “Checkpoint Washington,” Washington Post, 7/28).

The policy — which includes exceptions in cases of rape, incest or when a woman’s life is in danger — has been in and out of law since it was first adopted by President Reagan in 1984. President Clinton in 1993 reversed the ban, but President George W. Bush reinstated it in 2001 as one of his first actions after taking office. President Obama overturned the restriction within his first days in office. Last week, the House Foreign Affairs Committee endorsed reinstating the policy as part of a separate foreign aid bill (HR 2583) (Women’s Health Policy Report, 7/22).

The bill approved by the appropriations subcommittee also slashes support for international family planning organizations. The Post reports that the bill’s prospects are “uncertain” because it not likely to be passed by the Democratic-controlled Senate and signed by President Obama. The subcommittee’s ranking member, Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), slammed the measure, pointing out that it cuts disaster relief, health programs and family planning resources.

In a letter to members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned lawmakers that she would urge a veto of any legislation that seeks to impose strict new requirements on foreign assistance to critical allies and populations. The bill “would be debilitating to my efforts to carry out a considered foreign policy and diplomacy, and to use foreign assistance strategically to that end” she wrote. She also said the legislation puts “onerous restrictions” on the department’s operations and to foreign aid (“Checkpoint Washington,” Washington Post, 7/28). 

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