For Immediate Release

Organization Profile: 

Seventy-One Human Rights Organizations Call on President Obama to End Unnecessary Reproductive Health Restrictions That Harm Women

WASHINGTON - As President Obama makes official visits to Kenya and Ethiopia this week, a broad-based coalition of leading domestic and global organizations are calling on him to put an end to the incorrect implementation of the Helms Amendment in order to save women’s lives and protect their health.

In an open letter, the coalition asks President Obama to meet with the U.S. government’s partners implementing health and gender-based violence programs in Kenya and Ethiopia, local community organizations, and the women they serve, in order to see why it’s imperative that the Obama Administration address its flawed implementation of the Helms Amendment.

The Helms Amendment prohibits the use of U.S. foreign assistance funds “to pay for the performance of abortions as a method of family planning.” Although abortion in Kenya is allowed in cases of rape, incest and when the health or life of a pregnant woman is in danger, women are still unable to access legal abortion services. Unsafe abortion is a leading cause of maternal mortality, and Kenya and Ethiopia are among the 24 USAID priority countries in which 70 percent of maternal deaths worldwide occur.

“While nearly 300,000 women in developing countries continue to die needlessly from unsafe abortion every year, the United States’ flawed interpretation of the Helms Amendment denies critical funding to local organizations that could help women get the safe care they need, ” said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights.

“In Kenya, maternal deaths and injuries can and must be prevented,” added Evelyne Opondo, regional director for Africa at the Center. “President Obama has been a champion for women’s health in the United States, so we now call on him to take a stand for women worldwide and fix the Helms Amendment.”

The letter provides further background on the groups’ concerns, stating that women in Kenya, Ethiopia and around the world face high rates of gender-based violence, limited access to trained health care providers, and financial and geographic barriers to access comprehensive reproductive health care, including safe and legal abortion. Every year, an estimated 287,000 women die from complications related to pregnancy and childbirth – 13% of those deaths are the result of unsafe abortion. Close to half of those who die from unsafe abortion are younger than the age of 25. While no single policy can address the broad challenges that affect women in developing countries each day, the administration can take an important step by correcting its implementation of the Helms Amendment.

Kenya’s 2010 constitution eased the country’s severe restrictions on abortion, legalizing safe abortion services when the life or health of a woman is in danger and in cases of emergency—a measure aimed at decreasing the country’s high rates of maternal mortality and morbidity resulting from unsafe abortion. However, Kenyan women continue to be deprived of essential reproductive health services—including quality maternal health care and safe and legal abortion services. This is due to a variety of factors, including the misapplication of the Helms Amendment and the arbitrary withdrawal of the government’s guidelines for reducing morbidity and mortality from unsafe abortion and a ban on safe abortion trainings for health care professionals, which has led to great confusion as to when legal abortions can be provided.

The Center for Reproductive Rights filed a petition last month against Kenya’s Ministry of Health for undermining women’s constitutional rights and contributing to cases of maternal death by denying countless women, including rape survivors, access to safe, legal abortion.

The Center has worked for more than a decade across the continent of Africa to advance women’s access to reproductive health care through law and policy reform. In 2010, the Center published the report In Harm’s Way, which documented the devastating effects of the criminalization of abortion in Kenya before the law was reformed, and demonstrated how the weaknesses in Kenya’s health care system are further exacerbated when it comes to a reproductive health that is perceived as illegal and highly stigmatized.


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The Center for Reproductive Rights uses the law to advance reproductive freedom as a fundamental human right that all governments are legally obligated to protect, respect, and fulfill.

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