NEW YORK — Poll after poll over many years have shown that Americans overwhelmingly support legal access to abortion for women impregnated by rape. Yet the issue remains divisive, as demonstrated by two current rifts — one involving U.S. aid policy overseas, the other highlighting strategy differences within the U.S. anti-abortion movement.
The National Right to Life Committee recently voted to cut ties with one of its most zealous state affiliates, Georgia Right to Life. The move, which angered many anti-abortion activists nationwide, came after the affiliate defied instructions to endorse an anti-abortion bill in Congress because it included exceptions for rape and incest.
Georgia Right to Life's president, Dan Becker, described the March 29 ouster as "a tragedy" but said his group would stick by its 14-year-old policy of consistently opposing exceptions for rape and incest. "GRTL will stand true to its mission and not be swayed by the prevailing political winds," Becker said.
David O'Steen, executive director of National Right to Life, said his group and Becker's share a long-term goal of eliminating abortion. But short-term, he said, the national group is willing to support legislation that reduces the number of abortions, even if they have rape and incest exceptions.
Meanwhile, a loose coalition of abortion-rights and women's-rights activists is growing increasingly frustrated with President Barack Obama's administration. Despite years of lobbying, the activists have failed to persuade Obama to issue an executive order stipulating that U.S. foreign aid — though prohibited by Congress from subsidizing abortions as a method of family planning — could be used to provide abortions for women raped in wars.
The New York-based Global Justice Center, leading the push for an executive order, says many thousands of woman have been impregnated by rapists during recent conflicts in Rwanda, Bosnia, Congo, Syria and elsewhere, and yet most major international humanitarian organization balk at offering abortions for fear of jeopardizing their U.S. funding.
"Since the U.S. is the largest humanitarian aid donor, its abortion ban has become the de facto policy in most war zones where rape is used as a weapon of war," said the center's legal director, Akila Radhakrishnan.
Asked about the issue, the White House press office referred The Associated Press to the National Security Council, which advises the president on foreign policy matters. Two days later, the NSC said it was declining to comment.
The two controversies are notable in part because the American public is not closely divided on the issue of abortion access for rape victims. National polls taken since the 1970s consistently have shown that at least 70 percent of Americans support such access, and less than 25 percent oppose it.
O'Steen, the National Right to Life leader, acknowledged the polling results in a written analysis of the 2012 election.
"An overwhelming majority believes abortion should be allowed for rape," he wrote. "If that is the issue that defines what it means to be pro-choice or pro-life, then a majority will side with the pro-choice label."
In a telephone interview, O'Steen stressed that National Right to Life "doesn't want any child conceived by rape or incest to be killed by abortion." But that outlook, he said, does not prevent his group from endorsing certain anti-abortion bills that include the rape exception.
"We want to save all the lives that we can," he said. "You have to deal with the reality of the social and political climate."
National Right to Life's break with the Georgia group dismayed some anti-abortion activists, among them Keith Mason, co-founder of the Personhood USA movement that supports legislation defining human life as beginning at conception.
"What message does it send to our pro-life representatives when you whip them to support legislation that denies the right to life to innocent babies conceived in rape?" Mason said in a statement.
The president of National Right to Life's Ohio affiliate, Mike Gonidakis of Ohio Right to Life, also opposed the ouster of Georgia Right to Life. He said the airing of differences over rape and incest exceptions was harmful to the anti-abortion movement and suggested it would be wiser to focus on approaches that have broader public support, such as restricting late-term abortions.
"I struggle when I hear members of the pro-life community argue about rape and incest exceptions," he said. "I'm not saying give up on it, but let's fight the battles we can win."
Michael New, a political science professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, said the anti-abortion movement could be harmed if friction worsened between those favoring an incremental approach and those with an absolutist outlook. "The risk is that when elected officials see a lot of intense disagreement among like-minded groups, they tend to sit back and do nothing," rather than alienate one faction or the other, New said.
Internationally, the campaign to increase abortion access for wartime rape victims has made some progress. Political leaders in Britain, Norway and the Netherlands have supported it, as has U.N Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who last year endorsed "access to safe emergency contraception and services for the termination of pregnancies resulting from rape."
Twice during 2013, the U.N. Security Council — including the United States — passed resolutions calling for a full range of sexual and reproductive health services to be made available to women victimized by sexual violence.
Though the word "abortion" did not appear in the text of the resolutions, it was clear that the procedure was at issue, as evidenced in the opposition expressed by the Vatican's U.N. observer, Archbishop Francis Chullikatt.
"The death of innocent unborn children only visits further violence on women already in difficulty," he said.
The Global Justice Center contends that omitting the option of abortion from the medical treatment provided to women raped in war violates their rights under the Geneva Conventions that protect war victims.
"Within three days of taking office, President Obama affirmed that the U.S. would fully support the rights of military detainees under Geneva Conventions," said the center's president Janet Benshoof. "Yet, after five years, the president continues to turn a blind eye to ending the suffering of women victims of war who are forced to bear the children of their rapists, in large part due to the U.S. abortion ban."
The center says many of the rape victims in armed conflicts are minors, with bodies not developed enough to safely bear children. Without the option of safe, legal abortion, says the center, these victims face a high risk of death from illegal abortion, suicide or childbearing.
Doctors Without Borders, which has a policy of accepting no U.S. government funds, is one of the few major international humanitarian organizations with an explicit policy of providing abortions in cases where its doctors feel that's appropriate.
"We have seen time and time again that in the absence of safe abortion care, women will seek to terminate an unwanted pregnancy by other means, and unsafe abortions very often lead to more suffering and even death," the organization said in an email.
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