The U.S. Military’s Abortion Policy: Neither Fair Nor Equitable

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Over the past couple of months, the military has upped the ante in its fight to reduce sexual harassment and assault through education and prevention programs. This is all good, but it will take time to see whether or not these initiatives actually work.

In the short run, women are still being assaulted, and some of those assaults result in pregnancy. A pregnancy that cannot be aborted at a military facility because the military healthcare system denies coverage of abortion care, even in cases of rape or incest. This is grossly unfair.

True, abortion becomes an option if the mother’s life is endangered, she foots the bill herself, or seeks care outside the military system. But U.S. servicewomen remain the only federal workers denied coverage in cases of rape. Even federal inmates can get abortions. It is horrible enough to be sexually assaulted; when that assault results in an unwanted pregnancy, it begins the trauma anew.

Most rape victims are junior enlisted women who cannot afford an abortion in the civilian sector. Enlisted earn less pay, and often come from families who cannot afford to help them. If they are deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, they cannot get an abortion in country and must return to the United States, if they can convince their commands to let them go. Then they must pay for the procedure itself. The policies are stacked against women who are raped and become pregnant. Congress is the only organization that can change this scenario.

There may be hope. At the end of May, the Senate Armed Services Committee, with the endorsement of Senator John McCain, R-Ariz. passed an amendment from Senator Jeanne Shaheen , D-N.H., that would end this policy and let military women (and dependents) receive insurance coverage of abortion in cases of rape or incest. The amendment was adopted by a bipartisan vote of 16-10.

Several organizations have weighed in on the bill, including the Alliance for National Defense, where I serve as treasurer. But the organization Stand With Servicewomen, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, have been the key leaders fighting for this change. The next step is for the bill to go before the entire Senate for a vote. Amendments can be deleted or changed, so the fact that the committee voted for it does not mean it will pass both houses of Congress and become law. There are many more hoops yet to jump through.

It is time to reverse this policy and allow servicewomen the same rights to an abortion as any federal employee or inmate. Passing this bill is the first step in improving the rights of military women. If you support this effort, and I do, I recommend you visit the Stand With Servicewomen website and sign the petition to urge Congress to change this policy and ensure that the Shaheen Amendment becomes law this year.