At the beginning of this year, a long political battle to expand reproductive access for women serving in the military successfully ensured that female servicemembers will have the same abortion coverage that civilian employees of the federal government already do. But that victory didn’t apply to another sector of Americans serving abroad: Peace Corps volunteers working across the globe.
That’s why Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) is currently working to expand abortion access to rape victims serving in the Peace Corps. On Wednesday, the lawmaker introduced a bill to offer Peace Corps volunteers the same type of reproductive health coverage that is offered to other women who get federal health benefits. “It is unacceptable that their own country restricts their access to care,” Lautenberg said in a statement this week.
Under the current policy, if a Peace Corps volunteer has been raped and wants to terminate a pregnancy resulting from that sexual assault, she will be forced to pay for the entire cost of that abortion procedure herself because the federal government won’t cover it. That’s a sharp departure from the national standard. Although the Hyde Amendment prohibits the federal government from providing insurance coverage for elective abortions, it does contain a narrow exemption for rape, incest, and cases to preserve the life of the woman. Thirty two states and the District of Columbia also offer this type of exception in their bans on public funding for abortion.
Lautenberg’s bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), who spearheaded the recent effort to remove the same abortion restrictions for women in the military who have been victims of rape or incest. Women’s health advocates were encouraged that Shaheen’s legislation was successful, and they’re hoping that a similar push on behalf of Peace Corps volunteers will see the same results. “Just as Congress took historic action last year to ensure women in the U.S. military have basic reproductive health care coverage in cases of rape or incest, members of the House and Senate must support and pass this bill swiftly to protect the fundamental human rights of women serving our country in the Peace Corps,” Nancy Northrup, the president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement.
Fortunately, there is national momentum on this issue as well. The budget proposal that President Obama put forth earlier this month includes a provision that would eliminate the current abortion ban in the Peace Corps, bringing volunteers’ health coverage in line with the standards for other federal employees. That would also bring the Peace Corps’ policy in line with public opinion. Americans overwhelmingly support abortion access for victims of rape and incest.