Why All 100 Senators Should Support Access to Abortion in Cases of Rape in the Military


UPDATE: This afternoon, Wednesday, November 30th, 2011, a vote on the amendment was denied by Senate Leadership.

This article was co-authored by Lucy Panza, Women’s Health and Rights Program policy analyst at the Center for American Progress.

The Senate is currently considering the fiscal year 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, which will authorize funding for the nation’s defense for the next year, and negotiations over which amendments will be included in the bill may be settled as soon as today. One of the amendments that deserves attention is Senate Amendment 1120, offered by Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH). The amendment would permanently remove the ban on military insurance coverage for abortions to end pregnancies that result from rape or incest.

The Shaheen Amendment currently has 12 cosponsors. It should have all 100. This amendment should be entirely non-controversial and should appeal even to those who generally oppose abortion but are sympathetic to its need in cases of rape or incest. Even the Hyde Amendment — the original ban on government coverage for abortion — allows for abortion in those circumstances. Thus, as it currently stands, civilian government-sponsored health insurance, such as Medicaid and the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, covers abortion in cases of life endangerment of a pregnant woman and when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. Yet military government-sponsored health insurance, known as Tricare, only covers abortion care in cases of life endangerment. This means a servicewoman — someone who has volunteered to serve our country and defend our rights in a time of war — is not entitled to the same government-sponsored health care coverage that her civilian counterpart receives. That is the unacceptable situation that the Shaheen Amendment would correct.

This is not just a theoretical problem. According to the Defense Department’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office’s FY 2010 Report, 3,158 sexual assaults were reported in the military last year, of which 27.7 percent, or approximately 875, were rape. However, underreporting is rampant — DoD estimates that 86 percent of military sexual assaults go unreported. That means there may have been closer to 6,250 rapes in 2010. About 5 percent of first-time unprotected sex results in pregnancy, but that number can rise in the context of repeated acts of sexual assault. Based on those factors, we estimate that upwards of 300 military rapes resulted in pregnancy last year. Furthermore, recent research suggests that junior enlisted women are much more likely to be raped and, at the same time, to have the fewest financial resources. DoD reports that more than half of military sexual assault victims are 20 to 24 years old, and the overwhelming majority earn less than $23,000 per year — barely above the federal poverty level for a family of four. Thus, the servicewomen least able to afford to pay out of pocket for an abortion following a rape are the most likely to need it.

Beyond the basic fairness rationale of treating our soldiers at least as well as civilians and meeting the needs of our most vulnerable soldiers, our national security demands the Shaheen Amendment. When politically-influenced policies interfere with a soldier’s access to care, they leave her unprepared to fight and thereby disrupt military readiness. The Shaheen Amendment would permit a servicewoman to receive safe, legal, and affordable abortion care on base or in the military’s health network in a seamless fashion along with the other services to which she is entitled after being sexually assaulted. In other words, it would allow her to get timely, compassionate care and to return to duty without unnecessary delay.

Ideally, servicewomen and military dependents would have coverage for abortion care whenever they needed it, but in the meantime, the Shaheen Amendment is a step in the right direction and the very least these brave women deserve.

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