Religious Leaders Urge Obama to Allow Abortion Funding in Foreign Aid

Religiously-based efforts to prevent girls from getting an education, like the kidnapping of Nigerian school girls by Boko Haram, have resulted in murder and attempted murder (the Malala case), as well as schools being forced to close or go underground. We’re all for girls’ education and everyone who’s anyone, including Michelle Obama, has participated in the #BringBackOurGirls Twitter campaign. Even the Pope tweeted with prayers and the hashtag.

Violence against girls (and let’s not forget women) worldwide goes far beyond denying them the ability to go to school—they’re regularly raped by strangers and members of their family, and once raped are denied access to safe abortions. Several cases where Catholic bishops have influenced governments to deny abortion services to girls who had been raped were cited in the recent UN Committee hearings on the rights of the child and on torture.

Doctors and the mother of a nine-year-old Brazilian girl pregnant with twins, whose life was at risk if she continued the pregnancy, were threatened with excommunication. Beatriz, a 22-year-old Salvadoran woman was denied an abortion when her life was in danger, a move supported by the Salvadoran conference of bishops. One could go on. And of course, there was John Paul II’s plea that Muslim women raped during the civil war in Bosnia-Herzgovina should carry those pregnancies to term and turn those rapes into “acts of love.”

It is especially in situations of war and massive displacement that girls are subjected to rape. And, not only do religious views on abortion result in abortion denied, US foreign policy contributes to their suffering. According to Save the Children, 80% of war rape victims are children under 18; in the eastern Congo, 48 women and girls are raped ever hour. There is no outcry.

And little outcry that the Helms Amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act has, since 1973, prohibited US foreign assistance from paying for the “performance of abortion as a method of family planning” or to “motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions.”

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) has interpreted this amendment to prohibit US funding of abortions that would preserve the physical or mental health of a woman, yet allow it for victims of rape or incest, or to save a woman’s life. However, the US has never funded any programs that include abortion services, even in these legally-permitted cases.

In part, the absence of much needed funding in this area is fueled by successive administrations’ concerns about objections from the Catholic bishops and large evangelical health agencies like World Vision. Were USAID funding to include safe abortion services for victims of rape, these groups could stand to lose money.

A new effort to demonstrate to the administration that religious leaders support providing access to safe abortion for women and girls who’ve been raped may just shift that perception in government. Launched by the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE) and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), two dozen prominent religious leaders have written to the president urging him to issue an executive order that will interpret the Helms Amendment to permit funding for safe abortion services when women have been raped or their lives are in danger. The leaders call current US policy on safe abortion “immoral,” and assert that “when a pregnancy is a result of rape or incest, or when a pregnancy is a threat to the life of a woman, safe abortion can and should be made available and accessible, and US foreign assistance should support such access.”

While the usual progressive suspects are signers, the letter has garnered remarkable support from mainstream denominational leaders including The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop and Primate, The Episcopal Church and Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, General Minister and President, United Church of Christ. The Catholic community is represented by Sr. Jeanine Grammick who signed for the National Coalition of American Nuns.

Serra Sippel, president of CHANGE, noted that “an executive order by the president that would allow US funds to be used in support of safe abortion services for girls and women who have been raped would go a long way toward restoring their dignity and prospects for the future—and even the ability of girls who have been raped to go back to school.”

fkissling@gmail.com'

Frances Kissling is a visiting scholar at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania and former president of Catholics for a Free Choice.