Clerics Urge Obama to Unilaterally Overturn 41-Year Overseas Abortion Ban

By Tatiana Lozano | May 22, 2014 | 1:09 PM EDT


Rev. Debra Haffner, president and co-founder of the Religious Institute. (Wikipedia)

( - Nearly two dozen religious leaders have signed a letter urging President Barack Obama to overturn a longstanding ban that forbids the use of foreign aid for overseas abortions.

But they all declined to answer a question on whether Obama has the legal authority to unilaterally change a law passed by Congress four decades ago.

A coalition of abortion rights advocates, including 21 clergy members, signed a May 4th petition by the Center for Health and Gender Equality (CHANGE), calling on President Obama “to use [his] executive authority to end the longstanding misinterpretation of the Helms amendment” and “clarify existing law so that in the cases of rape, incest and life endangerment, U.S. foreign assistance is allowed to support abortion access.”

The petition further stated:  “We believe that it is unacceptable - and in fact immoral - for our nation to continue to apply the Helms Amendment incorrectly.”

According to Austin Ruse of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), the Obama administration is being pressured to “circumvent” the Helms Amendment, which was first passed by Congress in 1973 as an amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act.

The Helms Amendment states:  “No foreign assistance funds may 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.”

Ruse expressed concerns about the practical implications of funding overseas abortions, including increased health risks for women in high-conflict zones, possible discrimination “against faith-based aid organizations that will not commit abortion,” and potential violations of other nations’ sovereignty.

But when contacted the clerics to ask how the law could have been "misinterpreted" for 41 years,  only a few were willing to elaborate on the document they signed.  And only one responded to a question about whether Obama has the legal authority to issue an executive order that unilaterally overrides an Act of Congress.

Rev. Debra Haffner, president of the Religious Institute, told that “the Helms Amendment [states one] cannot use abortion as a method of…family planning, so that providing services to women in cases of rape, incest, and life endangerment was not prohibited but interpreted to be prohibited.” However, Rev. Haffner declined to comment on whether the president had the legal authority to override it.

Rev. Jan Taddeo, a Unitarian Universalist minister who also signed the petition, called the amendment “vague and subjective” in an email response to’s questions. She also maintained that such foreign aid would help rape and abuse victims in war-torn areas, stating that this was “consistent with...other areas of U.S. law” regarding domestic exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother.

In an e-mail to regarding Episcopalian Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori’s signature on the petition, Neva Rae Fox, a spokeswoman for the Episcopal Church, said that “the letter, as presented, speaks for itself.” Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) likewise had no “further comment,” according to AU spokesman Simon Brown.

As of publication time, those who signed the petition but did not respond to’s inquiries included:

  • Rev. Harry Knox. President and CEO, Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice;
  • Dr. Michael J. Adee, Director,Global Faith and Justice Project;
  • Rabbi Jon Adland, Chair, Clergy Advocacy Board for Planned Parenthood Federation of America;
  • Rev. Geoffrey A. Black. General Minister and President, United Church of Christ;
  • Rev. Pat Bumgardner, Executive Director, Global Justice Institute;
  • Rabbi Marla J. Feldman, Executive Director, Women of Reform Judaism;
  • The Rev. Canon Carol Cole Flanagan, St. John’s Episcopal Church and School, African Palms USA;
  • Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, President, Interfaith Alliance;
  • Sister Jeannine Gramick, National Coordinator, National Coalition of American Nuns;
  • Rev. Dr. Larry Greenfield, Chair, Religious Institute;
  • Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen, Westminster Presbyterian Church, Minneapolis, MN;
  • Rev. Dr. Susan Henry-Crowe, General Secretary for the General Board of Church and Society, United Methodist Church;
  • Mary E. Hunt, Ph.D., Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual;
  • Nancy K. Kaufman, CEO, National Council of Jewish Women;
  • Rev. Marti Keller, Minister, Unitarian Universalist Women’s Federation;
  • Frances Kissling, Former President, Catholics for Choice, and President, Center for Health, Ethics, and Social Policy;
  • Rabbi Debra Kolodny, Executive Director, Nehirim;
  • Rachel Laser, Deputy Director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; (See Editor's Note below.)
  • Rev. Peter Morales, President, Unitarian Universalist Association;
  • Chett Pritchett, Executive Director, Methodist Federation for Social Action;
  • Elizabeth Raider, National President, NA’AMAT USA;
  • The Rev. William F. Schulz, President, Unitarian Universalist Service Committee;
  • Rev. Martha Shiverick, Former President, Clergy Advisory Board for Planned Parenthood Federation of America;
  • Rev. Dr. Jon M. Walton, Pastor, The First Presbyterian Church in the City of New York;
  • Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Director, The Shalom Center;
  • Lori Weinstein, CEO and Executive Director, Jewish Women International;
  • Marcia J. Weiss, Vice President and National Advocacy Chair, NA’AMAT USA;
  • Rev. Dr. Nancy Wilson, Moderator and Global Leader, Metropolitan Community Churches.

Editor's Note: Max Rosenblum, a spokesman for Rachel Laser, responded to's questions after this article was published.

"Abortions in the case of rape, incest and where the woman's life is in danger are not for the purpose of 'family planning.' It is also worth noting that every Republican president who enacted the Mexico City policy made exception to the restrictions in cases of rape, incest, and if the woman's life is in danger," Rosenblum stated on behalf of Laser, who also denied that "in directing the State Department and USAID to interpret the Helms Amendment," the president would override congressional law.

"Rather, he would be acting well within the limits of the law," Rosenblum said. "If the Helms Amendment was intended to be a total ban on abortion funding, Congress would have written the language that way, as it has done before."