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If Abortion Is a Sin, the U.S. Should Be Asking for Forgiveness

At the beginning of last month, Pope Francis announced that priests around the world would be authorized to forgive the “sin of abortion.” Initially, I dismissed this grand proclamation but on Monday, the more and more I thought about it, the madder I got.

I was at a meeting at the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD) at the annual meeting of the Reproductive Health Supplies Coalition. The topic was Ensuring Access to Safe and Legal Abortion and I kept thinking back to my junior year of high school and my friend who chose to have an abortion. At the time, I don’t think I fully understood nor could I articulate my feelings about abortion. What I did know, is that I needed to support my friend and her choice. It never crossed my mind that she would need to ask for forgiveness.

What will forgiveness do to help the nearly 22,000 women around the world that die each year from the complications of unsafe abortions? The majority of these women live in developing countries where access to safe abortion and other reproductive health services is often limited. What will forgiveness do to reduce stigma and discrimination?

NORAD recognizes that something must be done. They have been bold and they have been vocal. The Norwegian Government’s white paper on “Global health in foreign development policy” underlines that reproductive health also includes the right to safe, legal abortions, and access to treatment in case of complications, regardless of the abortion’s legality.

The Norwegian government also hasn’t shied away from calling out countries who are not doing enough and countries with policies that are making things worse. This includes the United States. As part of the United States’ human rights record review at the United Nations—a process that happens for every member state, every four and a half years—Norway, along with the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Belgium, urged the United States to implement the Helms Amendment correctly.

The Helms Amendment is a U.S. policy that has prevented countless women from getting the reproductive care they need. Most people think the policy, which has been in place for more than 40 years, enforces a complete ban on U.S. foreign assistance for abortion—including in cases where a woman needs an abortion because of rape or incest, or because her life is in danger. But the policy doesn’t have to be interpreted that way.

Earlier this month, in a stunning display of weakness, the United States rejected calls from Norway and others to protect rape victims and women whose lives are endangered by their pregnancies. In remarks to the United Nations Human Rights Council, the United States refused to correct its current extreme interpretation of the Helms Amendment. The United States decision’ comes despite reports of the increasing use of rape as a weapon of war—and the urging of champions in Congress and more than 80 civil society organizations to correct this harmful policy.

This action is the least that President Obama can do when it comes to ensuring the United States stands with women when they are at their most vulnerable. This decision undermines the US position as a leader in sexual and reproductive health and rights, it stands in direct contradiction to our laws and deeply held beliefs, and it does nothing to reduce maternal deaths resulting from unsafe abortion.

Twenty-two years later—with a lot more life experience—I can more clearly articulate my feelings: we must support women when they demand their right to access safe abortion, we must speak up for the women who can’t, we must remove the policy barriers that impede access, and we must reduce stigma and discrimination.

The women I fight alongside, women like my friend, are not victims. They are strong and they are resilient. And, they need forgiveness from no one.

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