Reproductive health-care activists urged President Barack Obama to take executive action on the Helms Amendment early Tuesday morning during a demonstration outside the White House’s United State of Women Summit.
The two-day summit includes a variety of sessions across downtown Washington, D.C., around six main themes: economic empowerment; health and wellness; educational opportunity; violence against women; entrepreneurship and innovation; and leadership and civic engagement. However, none of the themes include abortion care. Even the description for the summit’s focus on health and wellness merely touts the Affordable Care Act’s coverage of preventive services, such as U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved contraceptive coverage under the birth control benefit, and touches on maternal mortality and HIV prevention only as issues of global concern.
The word “abortion,” as Rewire previously reported, is nowhere to be found in any of the summit’s materials.
Some two dozen-plus activists gathered across from the Walter E. Washington Convention Center to press for action on an obstruction to reproductive health care globally: the Helms Amendment. The federal statute prohibits U.S. foreign assistance funds from paying for abortion care “as a method of family planning.” In theory, the Helms Amendment makes exceptions in cases of rape, incest, and life endangerment; in practice, the Obama administration has failed to enforce these guarantees, amounting to a total ban on foreign assistance for abortion care. The activists are asking the president to clarify those exceptions through executive action.
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The Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE), Amnesty International USA, Reproaction, and Catholics for Choice organized what they described as a “call to action” rather than a protest of the summit. Several of the groups paid for a full-page ad in the Washington Post that appealed directly to Obama “on this historic day for women.”
“We know you can lead on abortion,” the ad said. “We know you can stand with women and girls raped in conflict. We pledge to stand by you when you do. What are you waiting for?”
Organizers mounted the campaign to pressure the White House in this way based on prior victories. Erin Matson, co-founder and co-director of Reproaction, attributed presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s and rival candidate Sen Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) public embrace of repealing Helms and other pro-choice policy objectives to the tenaciousness of activists. The more mainstream party establishment, Matson said, would have preferred for activists to hold out for a “better time.”
“There’s never going to be a better time to do the right thing,” she said.
Imagine telling somebody who became pregnant “as a result of rape and war” to wait for a future administration, Matson said. In Nigeria, more than 200 women and girls freed in 2015 from Boko Haram insurgents were visibly pregnant upon their rescue. Last year, religious leaders and congressional Democrats urged Obama to fund abortions for the stated Helms exceptions. In Daesh strongholds, the terrorist group has enshrined a “theology of rape,” according to an extensive New York Times report.
“There’s really no excuse not to act now,” Matson said.
Another imperative: Policy changes don’t happen instantaneously. Should the Obama White House act in the remaining days of the administration, another Democrat in the White House would be able to assume the mantle of implementation at the outset of the presidency, said Joanna Kuebler, CHANGE’s director of external affairs.
“We fully support the summit, but you can’t take a victory lap on your women’s rights record without standing with women raped in conflict,” Kuebler said.