Intended for healthcare professionals


Rape in war: how a US law prevents aid for safe abortions

BMJ 2014; 349 doi: (Published 13 August 2014) Cite this as: BMJ 2014;349:g5073
  1. Sally Howard, freelance journalist, London
  1. sal{at}

The US “Helms Amendment” threatens all foreign aid

In June the then UK foreign secretary, William Hague, flanked by his co-host, the actor Angelina Jolie, opened the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. He pledged £6m (€7.5m; $10m) in UK funding to support survivors of sexual violence in conflicts and called for the world “to consign this vile abuse to history.” Amid the rhetoric of this three day jamboree of 1700 lawmakers, activists, and survivors in London, most participants missed the awkward question put by the US human rights lawyer Janet Benshoof to a panel of politicians and humanitarian aid workers on the first day of the summit. Why, Benshoof asked, with all these world leaders and health activists gathered to tackle the issue of sexual violence in conflicts, was no one talking about one of the greatest threats to the wellbeing of women raped in conflicts?

The panel, which included representatives of the US and UK governments, the United Nations, and the International Committee of the Red Cross, said that it could not comment on the target of Benshoof’s inquiry: the 1973 Helms Amendment to the US Foreign Assistance Act. Her question exposed the hypocrisy at the heart of international commitments to support survivors of sexual violence in conflict.

“The Helms Amendment was the elephant in the room at the summit,” says Benshoof, who as president of the New York based human rights organisation the Global Justice Center leads the US campaign for a reinterpretation of this constitutional clause that restricts the spending of US overseas aid on abortion provision or counselling.

The amendment unambiguously puts limitations on the circumstances under which abortion procedures can be funded by the US government. It prohibits “the performance of abortions as a method of family planning or to motivate or …

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