Foreign Policy, Akin-Style: How the U.S. Denies Abortions to Women Raped in War

When rape is used as a weapon of war in places like Congo or Bosnia, thousands of women and girls can become pregnant, but a piece of 39-year-old U.S. legislation means that few if any aid groups are allowed to provide or even discuss abortion services with them.

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Five Sudanese women, raped during the Darfur conflict, rest at a refugee camp. (AP)

There's a 38 year-old Congolese woman named Josephine who has probably never heard of U.S. Representative and Senatorial candidate Todd Akin. But, if she had, Josephine would know all too well how wrong Akin was when he said that a woman's body can "shut the whole thing down" and prevent a pregnancy if she experiences a "legitimate rape." When Josephine was 29, she, like many of the estimated 1.8 million other women and girls who were raped during the Congo's series of conflicts, became pregnant. Akin's comments will never affect Josephine, so she has little reason to care. But she cares very much about the U.S. legislative efforts to restrict abortion access, because that decades-long campaign, of which Akin is only an example, has changed her life permanently.

Josephine carried her baby to term and raised him. It wasn't what she wanted. She wanted an abortion, but didn't know where to get one, despite the many health services NGOs that operated in and around Congo. "In the community, they made such fun of me that I had to leave the village and live in the forest," she told Amnesty International. "Today, the only thing that I can think about is that I want an abortion. I am hungry; I have no clothes and no soap. I don't have any money to pay for medical care. It would be better if I died with the baby in my womb." Unfortunately, Josephine's story is not unique. Thousands of girls and women raped and impregnated in armed conflict are routinely denied abortions with devastating consequences. Health experts say that about 5 percent of rapes lead to pregnancy, which suggests that the 1.8 million women and girls raped during the Congo's crisis may have led to as many as 90,000 unwanted pregnancies. 

Though international humanitarian law provides a right to non-discriminatory medical care for rape victims in conflict, U.S. legislation forbids U.S. foreign assistance funds from being used to provide abortion services or information about abortion. This means that aid groups of the sort that might have helped Josephine are forced to choose between offering even basic information about abortion or accepting U.S. funding, which is often their largest source of funds. In effect, this pressures aid groups to deny a necessary medical service to pregnant women.

The U.S. restriction goes back to the 1973 Helms Amendment, which prohibits foreign assistance funding for "abortion as a method of family planning." That sounds straightforward enough, and "as a method of family planning" does not explicitly bar abortions for pregnancies resulting from rape. But it's more complicated. The 1976 Hyde Amendment, a similar piece of legislation that restricts federal funding for abortions domestically, does include a specific exception for cases of rape, which may help explain why the U.S. government currently interprets the Helms rule, which is habitually included in annual appropriations, as not providing an exception for cases of rape. Not only does this bar U.S. foreign aid recipients from offering abortion to victims of rape, it censors foreign assistance funding from being used even to speak about abortion to rape victims such as Josephine. U.S. foreign aid is often the greatest source of funding for humanitarian organizations, which is why many of them resign themselves to denying the abortion services that so many women and girls, especially those in conflict zones, need.

Many NGOs in conflict zones, as a result of this legislation, choose to follow the American requirement so that they can continue using American money. Without the provision of safe, legal abortion services, women and girls raped in conflict zones often have two options: turn to dangerous abortion methods provided in non-sterile conditions by people without medical training, or risk pregnancy. In a difficult conflict environment, where violence, malnutrition, and diseases such as malaria can all be more common, pregnancy can carry a greater risk of death for the mother or, ironically, her child. A rape-induced pregnancy can also function as a constant reminder of that original trauma, which can sometimes include gang rape, torture, or other forms of violence.

Presented by

Akila Radhakrishnan & Kristina Kallas

Akila Radhakrishnan is a staff attorney at the Global Justice Center, where Kristina Kallas is a volunteer attorney.

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