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Opposition to US abortion aid ban mounts


RedCrossCare for war rape victims should trump national law.

The USA’s refusal to allow foreign aid to pay for offering and the provision of abortions to women raped in war is increasingly at odds with the international community.

A recent debate in the UK’s House of Lords raised the profile of the issue and adds to international and domestic pressure on President Obama to review the ban.

The US’s current ban is a 1973 amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act 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,’ even if abortion is legal in the state receiving the aid.

The US government is the largest individual donor to ‘the largest, most influential and effective humanitarian organization in the world,’ the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

The USA’s stance visibly affects the care made available to women around the world, as seen in the ICRC’s lack of publicly referring to abortion.

Internally, however, the organisation’s directions are clear.

It advises doctors to provide ‘the best possible response to the victims’ needs while upholding the ICRC’s general position on abortion, which is that its medical staff do not perform abortions.’

A 2010 report by the USA’s Centre for Reproductive Rights said that ‘restrictive abortion laws may criminalize abortion even when it is necessary to save a woman’s life or to preserve her physical or mental health.

‘Provider compliance with these restrictive laws can jeopardize women’s fundamental rights to life, health and freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment (CIDT).’

Rape has been recognised as a war crime since 1998 and torture since 2000, and women who have been raped and carry the child to term face considerable problems.

Some organisations, including the World Health Organisation (WHO), avoid the ban by segregating their US funds in order to provide abortion care paid for by other donations.

Research published by the WHO in 2011 on US aid policy and induced abortion in sub-Saharan Africa found that ‘if women consider abortion as a way to prevent unwanted births, then policies curtailing the activities of organizations that provide modern contraceptives may inadvertently lead to an increase in the abortion rate.’

The research also found support for ‘our premise that funding for family planning services has a paradoxical effect on abortion outcomes.’

In its current assessment of the status of Millennium Development Goal 5 (Improve Maternal Health), in particular regarding Target 5.B: ‘Achieve universal access to reproductive health’, the UN said that ‘inadequate funding for family planning is a major failure in fulfilling commitments to improving women’s reproductive health.’

Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) recently spoke out about its commitment to providing independent care, saying that ‘aid must not be hijacked as a political tool.’

And in the UK, a recent House of Lords debate on Rape in Armed Conflict, Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead said that “this country must take global leadership on this matter.

“Women raped in war are absolutely entitled [to abortions] as persons who are wounded and sick.”

She went on to say that “Norway has made a bilateral request to the US to ask it to lift the abortion ban on humanitarian aid for women raped in war as a matter of US compliance with the Geneva conventions.

“Why has the UK not followed Norway’s example?”

In response to these and other questions, Baroness Northover, the UK government’s spokesperson in the House of Lords on International Development, said that “The Department for International Development (DfID) requires that all UK-funded humanitarian partners abide by humanitarian principles, including non-discriminatory provision of assistance.

“We do not ask the ICRC to segregate funds as it is fully aware of its obligations to different donors. We have flagged and will continue to flag the UK’s position to the ICRC.

“[And] we are exploring further the Norwegian position.”

Baroness Northover also said that “the denial of abortion in a situation that is life threatening or causing unbearable suffering to a victim of armed conflict may therefore contravene Common Article 3 [of the Geneva Conventions].

“Therefore, an abortion may be offered despite being in breach of national law by parties to the conflict or humanitarian organisations providing medical care and assistance.

“Clearly, this service provision very much depends on the facts of each situation but I state clearly that it is our view that there is no blanket ban on such medical help when covered by international humanitarian law even if national laws might be at variance with that.”

The Global Justice Center hailed Northover’s words, calling them ‘a historic change [to the UK’s] policy on abortions for women raped in armed conflict.’

While questions have been raised about the burden of proof of ‘unbearable suffering,’ the UK’s new leadership role is important in questioning publicly the disproportionate power a forty-year-old law holds over international humanitarian aid and the life and death of millions of women and girls around the world.

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