By Chen Reis, Special to CNN
Editor's note: Chen Reis is clinical associate professor and director of the Humanitarian Assistance program at the University of Denver's Josef Korbel School of International Studies. The views expressed are the author's own.
Forty years ago, on January 22, 1973, American women won the right to legal abortion after the Supreme Court narrowly decided the landmark case of Roe v Wade. Shortly after the 1973 decision, members of Congress enacted the "Helms Amendment," that states that "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." This amendment has been incorrectly interpreted to restrict the access of women worldwide to comprehensive reproductive health care including abortions even in the case of rape, incest or medical necessity. At the moment that American women won the right to have power over their own fates, those in the most need around the world lost theirs.
A correct interpretation of the Helms Amendment would allow exemptions at least in cases of rape, incest and medical necessity. As implemented, however, the policy flowing from this amendment has restricted women's access to abortion even in countries and circumstances where abortion is legal. This inconsistency was recently noted in a letter written by 12 members of Congress to President Obama in December. They pointed out that the current application of the Helms Amendment is inconsistent with other federal policy and requested that the president change how the policy is implemented.
Lack of access to safe abortion services kills women. In the absence of legal, safe abortion services, women often resort in desperation to unsafe abortions performed in unsanitary settings by unqualified individuals. A woman who undergoes such a procedure risks severe complications from these procedures including illness, disability and even death. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), unsafe abortions are among the major causes of maternal death leading to more than 1 of 10 maternal deaths worldwide. The WHO estimates that worldwide, approximately 47,000 women die and 5 million women suffer injuries every year from unsafe abortions.
Women fleeing for their lives from armed conflict and trying to keep their families together after natural disasters do not always have the ability to obtain birth control and often have very little control over their bodies. It has been well documented across the globe, including in Haiti, Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo, that women and girls are often raped or forced to pay for necessities such as food and shelter with their bodies. The women and girls who live these horrific stories of violence, humanitarian need, and lack of essential services depend on humanitarian aid for survival.
The United States should be proud of its commitment to humanitarian aid around the world. According to data compiled by the United Nations, the U.S. was the largest humanitarian donor in 2012 as it has been in previous years. However, U.S. funding that restricts needed humanitarian aid that might relate to abortion could result in loss of life. President Obama showed his support for women's right to comprehensive health care in his first term by overturning one restrictive policy, known as the "Mexico City Policy" during his first administration. Now is the time to overturn the Helms Amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act.
President Obama's commitment to women's rights is clear. He and members of his administration have talked about women's issues as part of the United State's foreign policy, including empowerment of women and addressing sexual violence. In his second inaugural address, he stated that "we must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice -- not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes: tolerance and opportunity; human dignity and justice." Such talk should be translated into action for women around the world who are affected by wars and natural disasters. The second Obama administration should immediately move to increase humanitarian funding for reproductive health services including family planning and overturn the harmful Helms amendment. American principles demand no less.