WASHINGTON — A starkly worded ad began appearing this week at bus stops near the White House. Next to a silhouette of President Barack Obama’s back reads the words: “Don’t walk away from women and girls raped in conflict. Act now.”
A coalition of religious and human rights leaders on Thursday followed up the advertisement with demands that Obama support the financing of abortions for women raped during violent conflicts overseas by members of terrorist groups like the Islamic State in Syria and Boko Haram in Nigeria.
The leaders of several Jewish, Christian, and Muslim groups accused the president of talk rather than action in addressing the grim fate of women and girls by refusing to direct the US government to help pay for abortions in cases of rape in foreign countries.
“President Obama has spoken compassionately about women and girls raped in war and conflict, but has failed to act on that compassion,” the coalition said.
Federal law prohibits the US government from using foreign assistance funds for the “performance of abortion as a method of family planning or to motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions.” The law, known as the Helms Amendment — originally sponsored by Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C. — has banned the use of federal funds for overseas abortions since 1973.
But the religious groups said Thursday that the Helms Amendment mentions only abortions used as a method of family planning and should not be viewed as restricting the use of federal funds to make abortions available in cases of rape or incest. They called on Obama to issue an executive order making government funds available for that purpose.
At a news conference at St. John’s Episcopal Church across from the White House, a dozen members of the coalition criticized Obama for refusing to do something to help brutalized women.
“Right now, President Obama is failing to stand with women and girls raped in conflict,” said Serra Sippel, president of the Center for Health and Gender Equality.
Sara Ratcliffe, a director at Catholics for Choice, said advocates had “spent 6 1/2 years pleading, prodding and shouting to be heard, but no avail. This administration continues to bend a knee to the religious extremists.”
White House officials referred questions about the policy to the US Agency for International Development, which would administer that kind of foreign aid. A spokesman for the agency declined to comment on the record.
Obama has repeatedly mentioned his concern about women and girls being raped in conflicts around the world. In a prime-time address in September about the Islamic State from the White House, the president said ISIS fighters “enslave, rape, and force women into marriage.”
He spoke about the subject again later that month in a speech at the United Nations, saying that “mothers, sisters, daughters have been subjected to rape as a weapon of war.” And at a recent prayer breakfast, Obama said the terror group claimed “the mantle of religious authority for such actions.”
But Obama’s critics said those high-profile episodes of rape by Islamic State fighters, and the capture and rape of women and girls in Nigeria by Boko Haram, have not prompted Obama to act in the face of what would most likely be intense opposition from anti-abortion activists and members of Congress.
“We are asking for the president not to put politics ahead of women,” Sippel said.
Advocates for the change concede that no administration, Democrat or Republican, has interpreted federal law to allow the use of foreign assistance funds for abortions in rape cases since the Helms amendment went into effect more than four decades ago. But they said they had hoped Obama’s administration would be different.
Last year, Obama’s wife, Michelle, posted her support on Twitter for hundreds of Nigerian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram. In her post, a grim-looking Michelle Obama held up a handwritten sign that says #BringBackOurGirls.
The religious leaders said Thursday that Michelle Obama’s sentiment would mean little if her husband did not change the policy on abortion.
Jaqueline Mutere, a woman from Kenya, said at the news conference that she was raped during postelection violence in her country in 2007. She said she tried three times, unsuccessfully, to get an abortion and ended up having her baby.
“We have heard him speaking,” she said of Obama. “Now we want to see his action.”
The coalition is being led by a group called the Center for Health and Gender equity, which has been pushing the Obama administration to act for more than a year. Some of the groups, like the Central Conference of American Rabbis, are large. Others, like Muslims for Progressive Values, are smaller.
Last year, the Center for Health and Gender Equity and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice helped send a letter to the president on the subject, signed by 33 religious leaders and women’s advocates. The letter states that it is “unacceptable — and in fact immoral — for our nation to continue to apply the Helms Amendment incorrectly.”
On Monday, the group installed the ads aimed at Obama in the bus shelters.
“We faith leaders are here today to call the moral question,” said the Rev. Harry F. Knox, president of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. He said members of the coalition were scheduled to meet with the White House Council on Women and Girls on Thursday afternoon.
“Our previous meetings, though polite, with high level officials, have not resulted in action,” he said. “So today’s the day we ask him to act, yet again.”