Lawmakers Fight To Repeal The ‘Unfair’ Abortion Ban Imposed On Peace Corps Volunteers

CREDIT: AP Photo/Jim Cole

Sen Jeanne Shaheen D-N.H

If a Peace Corps volunteer needs an abortion for whatever reason — even in extreme cases, like if her pregnancy resulted from rape or if her pregnancy is potentially life-threatening — she’ll have to foot the bill herself. That’s because Congress imposes a total ban on abortion coverage for the volunteers in the government program. Now, reproductive rights advocates are fighting to change that policy, which the people who serve in the Peace Corps call “punitive and unfair.”

Peace Corps volunteers are launching a coordinated lobbying effort this week to urge Congress to repeal the unreasonably harsh restrictions on their abortion coverage. They’re traveling to Capitol Hill to ask lawmakers to support the Peace Corps Equity Act, a piece of legislation introduced by the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) last year that’s about to be reintroduced by his colleagues.

Peace Corps volunteers are subject to even more stringent abortion restrictions than other types of federal workers are. Although the Hyde Amendment prohibits the federal government from providing insurance coverage for elective abortions, it does contain exceptions in cases of rape, incest, and life endangerment. Peace Corps workers already have access to those narrow exemptions. But that’s not the case for the volunteers stationed around the globe.

The individuals serving in the Peace Corps often can’t afford the full cost of an abortion, since they earn a monthly stipend of just about $300. A new qualitative study documenting the abortion experiences of Peace Corps volunteers includes interviews with several women who reported “serious challenges” paying for the procedure. A full 97 percent of the individuals included said they support repealing the restrictions on abortion coverage in cases of rape, incest, and life threatening pregnancies.

“Extending basic reproductive health care services to female Peace Corps volunteers is long overdue,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), who co-sponsored Lautenberg’s bill and plans on re-introducing it again in the Senate, said in a statement. “Peace Corps Volunteers face inherent risks living and working abroad. There’s no reason they should be denied standard health care services offered to most women with federal health care coverage.”

Last year, Shaheen successfully expanded abortion coverage for women serving in the military. That effort had broad support, and women’s health advocates were encouraged by the momentum. Now, they’re ready to win the same victory for Peace Corps volunteers.

“We strongly urge all members of Congress to take every step possible, from the appropriations process to supporting the Peace Corps Equity Act, to finally promote equal health care coverage for those serving in the Peace Corps,” Nancy Northrup, the president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said. “These strong and brave women are serving their country far from home and deserve the same coverage for reproductive health services as other women who serve our country.”

President Obama agrees. For several years in a row, his proposed budget proposal has included a provision to eliminate the current abortion ban in the Peace Corps, bringing volunteers’ health coverage in line with the standards for other federal employees. The broader public is on board with this policy, too. Americans overwhelmingly support abortion access for victims of rape and incest.