Government Spending Bill Quietly Resolves Peace Corps Abortion Coverage Debate

CREDIT: AP Photo/Heng Sinith

U.S. Peace Corps volunteers pose upon arrival in Cambodia

Following a weeks-long fight to pass a spending bill and avert a government shutdown, the Senate passed a $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill on Saturday that President Obama is expected to sign. The passage of that legislation signals the quiet end to a fight over abortion coverage that has been playing out over the past year.

The spending bill includes a provision to extend abortion coverage for Peace Corps volunteers in cases of rape, incest, and life endangerment — bringing volunteers’ coverage in line with the health care that all federal employees receive. It’s a fix that reproductive rights supporters are celebrating.

“This long-awaited step by Congress will ensure that Peace Corps volunteers are provided basic reproductive health coverage that is extended to other women with federal health care plans,” Laura W. Murphy, the director of the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office, said in a statement. “Every woman should have the reproductive coverage she needs, and the brave women of the Peace Corps should no longer be unfairly targeted for inequitable treatment.”

For the past three decades, the people serving abroad in the Peace Corps have been subject to a total ban on abortion coverage, even if they became pregnant from a sexual assault or if they developed a life-threatening health issue during their pregnancy. That policy had serious economic repercussions; 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.

“It felt like a betrayal,” Christine Carcano, a Peace Corps volunteer in a rural Peru town who became pregnant after being raped, told the Huffington Post in a recent interview. “The Peace Corps staff had been amazing, but when it came to my biggest hour of need, their hands were tied.”

Although President Obama has attempted to expand abortion coverage for Peace Corps volunteers in his budget proposals over the past several years, that effort has typically been blocked by GOP lawmakers in the House.

Congress, however, has recently shown signs of inching closer to offering a fix for this discrepancy. This spring, the Peace Corps Equity Act of 2014 was introduced in both the House and the Senate, and volunteers like Carcano traveled to the Hill to lobby members of Congress to support the legislation. And for the first time this year, Senate and House Appropriations committees both approved a version of the FY 2015 State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill that included the policy change for volunteers’ insurance plans.

In general, the new spending bill maintains the status quo on insurance coverage for abortion services. It includes longstanding bans on abortion coverage for DC’s Medicaid recipients and for federal prisoners, for instance. It also maintains about the same level of funding for family planning programs.

There were plenty of other controversial riders tucked into the so-called “cromnibus” bill that were unrelated to reproductive rights, however. The recent budget negotiations allowed Republicans to push forward with financial deregulation, reversing a key piece of the Wall Street reform packages that passed in 2010.