The One Thing Obama Could Do Today To Help Women’s Rights Abroad

Photo: Simon Maina/Getty Images.
As President Obama travels to Kenya and Ethiopia, excitement about the short excursion is already at a fever pitch. Supporters have already flocked to Nairobi, where Obama will arrive on Friday night, but the trip has become controversial before it even begins. Obama's planned visits have spurred protests from many different corners: from conservative bishops upset about his support for LGBTQ equality, to human-rights organizations worried about how Ethiopia suppresses speech, to reproductive-health groups that want Obama to take executive action to allow the U.S. to help women who need abortions. Access to reproductive health care varies from state to state in America, but it is technically legal throughout the United States. And though Obama has spoken about the need to protect reproductive rights at home, it hasn't been a meaningful part of his vision for human rights worldwide. Thanks to a law passed in 1973, shortly after Roe v. Wade, the U.S. is barred from providing any support “to pay for the performance of abortion as a method of family planning or to motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions." Dozens of international groups, religious leaders, and health advocates have called on Obama to use his trip to Africa as an opportunity to look at the impact of this decades-old policy. Advocates aren't asking for a major legislative change or a months-long initiative; they're asking for Obama to correct what they have determined is a misinterpretation from long ago. As 71 groups pointed out in a letter to the president published on July 22, the Helms Amendment prohibits abortion as a form of "family planning," but it doesn't ban the U.S. from supporting abortions in cases of rape, incest, or medical emergency. Even the most anti-abortion American politicians at least grudgingly back those exceptions. And this is a time when the horrors of rape as a weapon of war can be seen in Africa and the Middle East. "The failure to end the overly restrictive implementation of the Helms Amendment leads to preventable deaths and injuries among the world’s most vulnerable women and violates their fundamental human rights," the letter said. As in America, women in developing countries where abortion is legal often face many obstacles when they need medical care: Poverty, misinformation from public officials, and fear of stigma leave African women in need of the sort of help U.S. aid agencies could provide if Obama's administration stopped interpreting the law as a blanket ban.

Maternal mortality is a serious health hazard in dozens of countries around the world — nearly 300,000 women die each year in childbirth.

Photo: Simon Maina/Getty Images.
The letter continued, "In countries like Kenya and Ethiopia, where abortion is legal in some or all of these cases, this misapplication of U.S. law is a primary barrier to women seeking the care they need." Maternal mortality is a serious health hazard in dozens of countries around the world — nearly 300,000 women die each year in childbirth. And, according to the Guttmacher Institute, an estimated 465,000 abortions are performed in Kenya every year, almost all of them illegal. Obama has already taken steps to ease restrictions on funding global reproductive health care; in 2009, he ended a ban on giving federal funds to international family-planning groups that provide abortions or counseling that includes abortion information. Those dedicated to expanding women's rights around the world want the president to make a stand again. “In Kenya, maternal deaths and injuries can and must be prevented,” Evelyne Opondo, regional director for Africa at the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement. “President Obama has been a champion for women’s health in the United States, so we now call on him to take a stand for women worldwide and fix the Helms Amendment.”

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