The United States plays a critical role in protecting the human rights of women and girls affected by war by raising concerns internationally and funding programs that aid sexual violence survivors. But – and it’s a very big but – the 1973 Helms amendment to the US Foreign Assistance Act undermines much of this important work. Yesterday, instead of choosing to reinterpret the amendment in a manner protective of women’s rights, the US government said it will stand by the law, as is.

It’s a reality that some women and girls subjected to rape in conflict become pregnant by their perpetrators. Healthcare providers funded by the US are limited in how they can help these rape survivors because the Helms amendment prohibits the use of US funding for abortion “as a method of family planning.” This has been interpreted to prohibit abortion even in the case of rape. 

Concerns about the detrimental impact of the Helms amendment on rape in conflict are regularly raised by humanitarian organizations, including by the service providers who struggle to give rape survivors the care they need.

Governments at the United Nations Human Rights Council recently raised this concern during the review of the US human rights record. The Netherlands, United Kingdom, and Belgium, among others, encouraged the US to clarify that the Helms amendment, in its implementation, should recognize that women and girls raped in conflict are not seeking to use abortions as family planning. This would allow US funding to support a comprehensive package of health care for women and girls in the aftermath of wartime rape, including abortions for those who need or choose this option.

Yesterday, in a response to the council’s review, the US stated that it will not provide this clarification. The Helms amendment will therefore continue not to assist women and girls – already traumatized by rape and war – in desperate need of this service, should they want it.  

September marks the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Platform of Action – a declaration recognizing the human rights of women – while October is the 15th anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, the first resolution of its kind addressing government obligations related to women in conflict and peacebuilding. These were both landmark moments for women’s rights, and the US played a critical role in each. It’s sadly ironic that at the time of these anniversaries, the US is not offering its hand in support, but is turning its back on women’s rights.