“IN INTERVIEWS, the women described being locked in houses by the dozen, at the beck and call of fighters, who forced them to have sex, sometimes with the specific goal of impregnating them.” That report from the New York Times about the experiences of women and girls held captive by Boko Haram militants in Nigeria came just weeks after Human Rights Watch detailed systematic sexual violence by Islamist militants of Yazidi women and girls in northern Iraq.
These accounts — along with documented incidents in Syria, South Sudan and other countries — highlight the horror and prevalence of rape as an instrument of war. They give new urgency to the need for the United States to correct a policy that prevents victims of conflict rape from getting safe abortions.
At issue is the interpretation of a decades-old provision governing the use of foreign aid. Enacted in 1973, the Helms amendment stipulates that foreign assistance may not 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.” It is clear that abortions to end pregnancies caused by rape are not barred by that language. But successive administrations, Democratic and Republican, have treated the amendment as an absolute ban on funding any abortions. That interpretation has forced survivors to have the children of those who raped them — with all the attendant anguish, health problems and societal-acceptance issues — or seek out their own methods to end the pregnancies. Each year too many women around the world die from unsafe abortions.
At one camp for Nigerians displaced by Boko Haram that was visited by the Times, more than 200 women were found to be pregnant but relief officials said they believed the number of those bearing the unwanted children of militants to be far higher. “The sect leaders make a very conscious effort to impregnate the women,” a local official told the Times. “Some of them, I was told, even pray before mating, offering supplications for God to make the products of what they are doing become children that will inherit their ideology.”
President Obama has spoken movingly about the “mothers, sisters and daughters” subjected to rape as a weapon of war, but he has failed to follow through with needed action.
A growing roster of religious leaders and human rights and women’s health groups have called upon him to take executive action to clarify that the Helms amendment does not apply in cases of rape or incest or when a woman’s life is endangered. On June 4, members of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths plan to gather at St. John’s Episcopal Church, across the street from the White House, for a news conference on the issue and to call attention to the president’s inaction.
We hope Mr. Obama gets the message and takes the steps needed to ease the suffering of war rape victims by giving them access to the medical care that is their right.
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