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Obama Administration Punts on Helms Amendment

Christine Grimaldi

The administration confirmed to Rewire that the president's remarks on "treating survivors" at the United State of Women Summit Tuesday will not translate into executive action on the Helms Amendment—the subject of a demonstration that preceded Tuesday’s summit activities.

Initially, President Barack Obama’s address to the United State of Women Summit late Tuesday afternoon suggested a turning point to reproductive health-care activists who want the president to clarify exceptions to the long-time prohibition on U.S. foreign assistance funds for abortion care “as a method of family planning.”

“I’ve made advancing gender equality a foreign policy priority,” Obama said to applause. “And we’ve implemented a comprehensive strategy to end gender-based violence around the world, from prevention, to treating survivors, to bringing perpetrators to justice. And we’re helping to remove barriers that prevent women from participating fully in their societies.”

The administration confirmed, however, that Obama’s remarks on “treating survivors” will not translate into executive action on the Helms Amendment—the subject of a demonstration that preceded Tuesday’s summit activities.

As Rewire has reported, the Obama administration has failed to clarify the Helms Amendment’s exceptions, precluding foreign assistance from funding abortion care even in cases of rape, incest, and life endangerment.

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“As we have said before, the U.S. government abides by U.S. law, including the Helms Amendment, which precludes the government from using foreign assistance funds to pay for the performance of abortion as a method of family planning or to motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions,” an administration official told Rewire in an email. “I don’t have any new announcements on that front.”

The official would not specify the president’s plans to support his public statement, nor if “treating survivors” specifically means providing access to abortion care in instances of rape, incest, and life endangerment. Additional questions that went unanswered included whether Obama’s remarks reflected activists’ calls for executive action—and if the president would consider clarifying exceptions to Helms down the road.

The official referred Rewire back to the original statement and said there would be no further administration comment.

Activists from Tuesday morning’s call to action criticized what they viewed as a weak response from the administration.

“Yesterday, for first time, the president included the word treatment when discussing women raped in conflict, which seemed like a step in the right direction,” Center for Health and Gender Equity President Serra Sippel said in an email to Rewire. “The White House response, however, makes it apparent that they are still running in place on this issue. A rape treatment plan that excludes access to abortion flies in the face of science and standard of care for rape survivors.”

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