Religious leaders call on US to support abortions for ISIS and Boko Haram rape victims

Women and children rescued from Boko Haram in the Sambisa forest by the Nigerian military, May 2, 2015. More than 200 women are thought to have become pregnant after being raped by the militants.Reuters

A group of religious leaders and health experts yesterday called on President Obama to provide access to funding so that women who have been raped by terrorists abroad can have abortions.

Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders met at St John's Episcopal Church, just opposite the White House, to raise awareness of the need to provide post-rape care, including abortions, for the victims of groups such as ISIS in Syria and Iraq and Boko Haram in Nigeria.

"Women are dying now. Families are being pushed further into poverty now because this care is not available to them," said Rev Harry Knox, president of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice which co-hosted yesterday's summit with the Centre for Health and Gender Equity.

There have been numerous accounts in recent months detailing the use of rape as a weapon of war around the world and reports from May suggest that more than 200 women who have been rescued from Boko Haram are now pregnant resulting from rape.

"That simply destroys a community," Knox told Christian Today. "That means that there will be a couple of hundred children who almost literally belong to no one in that community. That incredible act of violence has to be met with some response, it needs a compassionate response."

The political argument in the US centres on the Helms amendment, which was introduced in 1973, and specifies that foreign aid cannot 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".

The campaigners argue that this statement does not prevent abortion in the case of rape, but that US governments have generally interpreted it to mean a blanket ban on the use of foreign aid for abortions. They say that while President Obama has acknowledged the plight of these women, he has failed to back up his speech with action.

Ani Zonneveld, founder and president of Muslims for Progressive Values, who was at the event said in a statement: "It is deplorable and morally reprehensible that in light of our government's capacity to offer some respite and alleviation to the women and girls in Iraq and Syria they refuse to do so. It is time we hold our government accountable."

At the summit, Jaqueline Mutere shared her own experience of surviving rape during the outbreak of violence in Kenya following the 2007 elections. As a result of the assault she became pregnant and was unable to get a safe abortion.

Muture, who has since founded Grace Agenda, a Nairobi-based organisation providing post-rape care, said: "Access to safe abortion is as critical as the peace process in conflict resolution."

Knox told Christian Today that they have been working closely with the Obama administration for the last six years without seeking much progress, something he blamed on opposition from an "extremist religious minority".

He particularly blamed leaders from Roman Catholic and Evangelical Christian groups who have contracts for maternal health services with the government for not representing the views of their congregations.

Data from Pew Research suggests that although only 25 per cent of white evangelicals think abortion should be legal in all cases, an additional 45 per cent say that although it should be illegal in most cases, there are some cases where it should be allowed. The same survey showed that 47 per cent of Catholics thought it should be legal in most cases, and a further 31 per cent said there are certain cases where it should be allowed.

However, there are Christians who still feel this is not the right approach. Eric Scheidler, executive director of the Chicago-based Pro-Life Action League, told the Religion News Service that any change to the Helms amendment ought to be debated by Congress.

"I would urge these particular religious leaders who are calling for overseas abortions to be paid for by the American taxpayers to donate their own money," Scheidler said, adding that they shouldn't look "to abortion as an answer to the problem of rape."