Retired General Colin Powell, who served as the Secretary of State under former President George W. Bush, has joined dozens of other military leaders to call on Congress to improve abortion access for military women, particularly women who have become pregnant from rape.
Currently, the Defense Department only offers abortion services to military women when their lives are in danger, and doesn’t offer any narrow exemptions even in the cases of rape or incest — despite the fact that non-military federal employees, as well as women who are covered under federal programs like Medicaid or Medicare, have coverage for the abortion services they need in those cases. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen’s (D-NH) proposed amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act — which has already passed the Senate — would correct this discrepancy by allowing the military to fund abortions for survivors of rape and incest.
In a letter to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Powell and the other military leaders came out in support of Shaheen’s amendment, pointing out that military women deserve the same access to reproductive services as federal civilian employees already have:
It has been our privilege to lead and serve alongside the brave men and women of our armed forces and we believe that they deserve the best medical care that our country can provide. We were therefore greatly disappointed to learn that, by federal statute, the Department of Defense is barred from providing insurance coverage for abortion except where a pregnant woman’s life is endangered. Unlike other current federal restrictions on abortion coverage, the military ban provides no exception for cases of rape and incest. The current policy is unfair and must be changed.
Restoring abortion coverage to our servicewomen and military family members who are survivors of rape and incest would bring the Department of Defense in line with the policy that governs other federal programs, such as Medicaid or the Federal Employee Health Benefit program. At the very least, our military women deserve the same access to care as civilian women who rely on the federal government for their health care. Our servicewomen commit their lives to defending our freedoms; Congress should respect their service and sacrifice and provide them with the same level of health care coverage it provides civilians.
Studies have shown that rates of unintended pregnancy tend to be higher among military women because their contraception use is often lower, underscoring the military’s responsibility to better address women’s full range of reproductive needs. An estimated 200,000 military women serving in active duty would gain expanded abortion access if Shaheen’s amendment is passed.
Since the House has already passed a version of the National Defense Authorization Act that does not include Shaheen’s amendment, the two chambers must work out a final version of the bill in committee. But Powell’s fellow Republicans may still represent a road block. Anti-choice legislators blocked a similar amendment that Shaheen introduced last year.