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Women's advocates have spent 8 years begging Obama for what Justin Trudeau just did

Prince Harry Launches The Invictus Games In Toronto
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has taken some bold steps in the name of human and civil rights lately. He's not just a panda-hugging, meme-able celebrity — he's also pursuing policies, from his heartwarming welcome of Syrian refugees to his latest work on behalf of transgender rights, that are winning him admiring, envious fans among American liberals.

Trudeau is also an unapologetic feminist — and now his government is acting on those principles by lifting Canada's ban on abortion funding in international aid, a move advocates have urged for 30 years.

"Canada is committed to universal access to sexual and reproductive health services and rights," particularly in developing countries, Louis Belanger, communications director to International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau, told the Toronto Sun.

Canada will spend $750 million in the current fiscal year on global maternal and child health, the Sun reports, which continues the country's ongoing commitment to the issue.

It's not clear how much of that money will fund abortions — but there won't be any particular restrictions on the funding from Canada's end.

That means Trudeau is going further than Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders could as president without involving Congress. Both candidates have pledged to at least use their executive authority to "fix" the Helms amendment, the US's own ban on foreign-aid abortion funding, by lifting the ban in cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment.

Some countries have various restrictions on abortion rights, and Canada will follow those. That means, for instance, that Canada can't help women infected with Zika who want to end a pregnancy if their country bans abortion in cases of fetal abnormality or health risk.

But it's still a significant step forward for the rights of women and girls around the world — a step reproductive rights advocates have criticized President Obama for failing to take during his eight years in office.

"The decision by Prime Minister Trudeau to allow funding for safe abortion care in the developing world just highlights how out of step the United States is when it comes to addressing the full range of women’s health," Brian Dixon, senior vice president for media and government relations at Population Connection Action Fund, told Vox in an email. "But the fact that both Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders have said they support a repeal of the Helms Amendment and pledged to act administratively to allow for funding of safe abortion in certain cases is an important step forward."

Current US policy makes things difficult for pregnant rape victims in conflict zones

Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The Helms amendment is currently interpreted as a blanket funding ban on abortion no matter the circumstances. Advocates say that has a chilling effect on the NGOs and medical providers who offer women's health care in developing countries.

Providers fear losing funding from the US, which is the world's largest donor to women's health programs. So some providers stop offering abortion services altogether, even if the US isn't directly funding those services.

The Huffington Post's Laura Bassett reported from Kenya on how the Helms amendment set back abortion rights in that country. Kenya has abysmally high rates of both sexual assault, which can lead to unwanted pregnancies, and maternal death, which can be caused by unsafe illegal abortion.

After 100,000 women started going to the hospital or dying every year from unsafe abortion, Kenya decided it had a crisis on its hands and legalized abortion in 2010 for health reasons, including mental health, rape, or incest. But, fearing censure from the US, Kenya repealed that change in 2013.

When the Islamic militant group Boko Haram kidnapped and raped hundreds of women and girls in order to create a new generation of fighters, most of those girls came back pregnant — but none of them had the option to safely end those pregnancies.

While abortion is illegal in Nigeria except to save a woman's life, Nigeria is also subject to a treaty that requires abortion access for rape or incest victims, or for women whose physical or mental health is at risk. NGOs and governments could have pressured Nigeria to live up to its obligations under that treaty. But they didn't, for fear of losing funding due to the Helms amendment.

Meanwhile, 18.5 million women have unsafe abortions every year in developing countries, and 47,000 women die from them worldwide.

The president could change this with the stroke of a pen

Right after he took office, Obama repealed the "global gag rule," which prohibits providers from even talking about abortion if they want to receive US funding. But he didn't do anything about the Helms amendment, a policy that leads some foreign health care providers to act almost as if the gag rule were still in place. He could have, though.

The Helms amendment leaves some room for interpretation, and the executive branch can choose how to interpret it. The actual text of the law says aid to foreign countries can't pay for "the performance of abortions as a method of family planning," but it doesn't define "family planning."

Another federal ban on abortion funding, the Hyde amendment, applies to women in the US — but it makes exceptions for rape, incest, and life endangerment. Advocates say there's no reason the Helms amendment shouldn't include the same exceptions for women abroad, and that the text of the law actually allows this.

But it's never been interpreted that way, even by pro-choice presidents like Obama. It's not clear why that is, but fear of backlash from abortion opponents — including retaliatory cuts to all international family planning funding from Republicans in Congress — could be a factor. Both Helms and Hyde have been around since shortly after Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in 1973, and their bans on "taxpayer-funded abortion" are deeply important to the pro-life movement.

If the next president is a Democrat, though, that will change if the candidates keep their promises. Both Sanders and Clinton have said they will push Congress to repeal the Hyde amendment entirely. On the Helms amendment, both candidates now say they will at least use their executive power to clarify that Helms should have the same exceptions for rape, incest, or life endangerment as Hyde. And if the candidates went further than that on Helms, they could let US aid cover abortions for health crisis situations like the Zika virus.

Update: This post has been updated to add a comment from Brian Dixon and to clarify Hillary Clinton's position on the Helms amendment.