A piece of legislation currently moving through Congress would amend the total abortion ban imposed on Peace Corps volunteers, allowing them to use their government-provided insurance coverage to end pregnancies that result from rape and incest. On Tuesday, members of the GOP-controlled House of Representatives advanced the measure by a voice vote — a rare move to expand reproductive rights from a legislative body that passed a national abortion ban last summer.
The House Appropriations Committee approved a version of the FY 2015 State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill, the measure that allocates funding for the Peace Corps, that includes language to extend abortion coverage for volunteers in cases of rape, incest, and life endangerment. A Senate committee approved the bill with the same language last week. Now, the measure will head to full votes in the House and the Senate.
Nancy Northrup, the president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, called the House vote a “historic step” in the fight to ensure that Peace Corps volunteers have access to the health care they need. “We applaud Congress for finally doing the right thing and standing behind the women who have stood up for our country,” Northrup said in a statement.
The fight over abortion rights in the Peace Corps has stretched on for quite some time. Since 1979, the program has maintained a total ban on insurance coverage for abortion services, even in the rare cases when other federal employees are allowed to use their plans to pay for abortion — like when a pregnancy has resulted from rape or incest, or when continuing a pregnancy may endanger the woman’s life. That policy has serious economic repercussions for women who need this type of reproductive care. Since volunteers in the Peace Corps typically earn a monthly stipend of just $300, they often can’t afford to pay for an abortion out of pocket.
For several years in a row, President Obama’s proposed budget proposal has included a provision to bring Peace Corps volunteers’ health coverage in line with the standards for other federal employees. The Senate Appropriations Committee has also consistently approved funding bills that amend the total abortion ban. But those efforts have always been blocked by the House.
Until now. As the National Journal reports, reproductive rights supporters “have expressed cautious optimism” that this year could be different. They’re hoping that the recent attention to the issue — just last year, Congress expanded abortion coverage in cases of rape and incest for the women serving in the military — will propel the measure forward.
In addition to the appropriations bill amendment and Obama’s budget provision, there’s yet another avenue for Congress to expand Peace Corps volunteers’ abortion coverage. A standalone bill introduced in both the House and Senate, the Peace Corps Equity Act, would permanently amend the total abortion ban if it’s approved by both chambers.
There’s no telling whether the full House will be receptive to the policy. But if lawmakers decide to expand access to abortion coverage for Peace Corps volunteers, they’ll be in line with public opinion on the subject; Americans overwhelmingly support access to abortion services for victims of rape and incest.