Serra Sippel speaks in front of the White House at a rally for abortion access for women in conflict, December 2014.
Serra Sippel speaks in front of the White House at a rally for abortion access for women in conflict, December 2014.

(WOMENSENEWS)– Religious leaders and human rights advocates are convening across the street from the White House today, June 4, to call on President Barack Obama to take executive action to ensure access to abortion for women and girls raped in conflict.

The overwhelming majority of Americans support access to abortion in the case of rape, incest or life endangerment so issuing an executive order to correct the misapplication of foreign assistance policy should not be controversial, Serra Sippel, a co-organizer of the 1 p.m. press conference at St. John’s Church, Lafayette Square, said in a phone interview ahead of the event.

The strong backlash to Obama’s executive action on immigration reform, which was also supported by a majority of Americans, according to most polls, makes it difficult to imagine him addressing a hot-button topic like abortion access without stirring up another maelstrom of opposition.

Sippel is president of The Center for Health and Gender Equity, or CHANGE, a Washington-based advocacy group for sexual and reproductive health and the human rights of women and girls globally. Her goal is to appeal to Obama’s "moral sensibilities," which is why she reached out to the a Washington-based interfaith association committed to preserving reproductive choice as a basic part of religious liberty, as a partner.

Together they drafted a joint letter to the president, took out an ad in Politico and co-hosted a 2014 rally outside the White House to raise awareness of the issue.

"The voices of faith leaders are really important," said Sippel, "because they have an important message about responding to injustice with compassion."

Policies Don’t Reflect Compassion

Reverend Harry Knox is president and CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. "We are really frustrated that the compassion that American people feel for women surviving rape in conflict is not being reflected in our policies," Knox said in a recent phone interview.

Citing the directive to love one’s neighbor, which is common to a breadth of faith traditions, Knox added: "We want to let the White House know in no uncertain terms that religious leaders are calling on them to act with compassion."

Other religious leaders in the group include Rabbi Denise Eger, president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis; Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice; and Ani Zonneveld, founder and president of Muslims for Progressive Values.

Jaqueline Mutere, a Kenyan rape survivor-turned-advocate, , will be among the participants.

As violent extremist groups have increasingly turned to sexual and gender-based violence as a strategic means of waging war, more and more women and girls are suffering from a lack of comprehensive post-rape care. This type of care, according to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, includes psychosocial support as well as access to safe abortion.

Legally, nothing prevents American foreign aid from funding abortions for women who have been raped in conflict. Yet, a clause in the 1973 Helms Amendment outlawing the funding of abortions overseas for family planning purposes has been consistently misinterpreted as a complete ban on all abortion funding.

The White House has not responded directly to any previous efforts by these organizers. Nonetheless, Sippel hopes the Obama administration will clarify the Helms Amendment. She notes that the president has publicly acknowledged and expressed concern about what happens to girls and women subjected to rape as a weapon of war.

"We know he is listening," she said.

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