This ad features three female veterans—Dottie Guy, Kayla Williams and Shannon Clark—who have recently returned from war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is part of a campaign by the coalition Stand With Servicewomen and the American Civil Liberties Union to end a congressional ban on abortion care coverage in cases of rape and incest.
Imagine for a moment that you’re a soldier who gets pregnant from a rape. You want an abortion. If you were an employee of the State Department, your government health insurance would cover the cost. But because you’re in the Army, it doesn’t. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, the New Hampshire Democrat, wants to change that. Her amendment to do so as part of the 2013 defense authorization bill passed the Senate Armed Services Committee late last month. But she has run into an obstacle: House Republicans. They want to keep things the way they are.
The way things are is that not only must a servicewoman who has been made pregnant by rape pay for her own abortion if she wants one, she also can’t even pay with her own money to have the procedure done at a military health care center unless she can prove she was raped, which requires an investigation. What that means when she’s deployed in, say, Afghanistan or some other war zone, is rather obvious. But even if she is based in the States, the law treats her inequitably simply because she’s in the armed forces. This prohibition is far more stringent than the Hyde Amendment, which restricts government funding for abortions except in cases of rape, incest and if the woman’s life is endangered.
The way things are is that thousands of American servicewomen report being assaulted each year, according to the military’s own surveys. As in the civilian world, reported rapes constitute only a fraction of the actual numbers because, for various reasons, women don’t come forward. These aren’t reports from women who have been captured by enemy forces and raped, one of the reasons “chivalrous” right-wingers often bring up as an excuse to bar women from combat roles. Servicewomen are raped by their male peers and by their commanding officers. In 2011, 471 servicewomen reported rapes. But given that the Pentagon estimates only one in seven rapes is reported, the actual number is several thousand a year. Thus, the number of pregnancies from rape in the military is several hundred a year.
The subject of sexual assault in the military has received considerable attention lately thanks to the efforts of the Service Women’s Action Network, the coalition of groups Stand with Servicewomen and the feature-length documentary, The Invisible War—shown on Capitol Hill and at Netroots Nation in Providence, R.I. The film opens to the general public on June 22.
The way things are, according to a report in Military Medicine, is that junior enlisted women are most likely to be targets of rape and the least likely to be able to afford an abortion if they need it. As usual, the less affluent get the worst treatment.
The way things are is that efforts have been made for years to get this grotesque, ruthless inequity off the books. But Congress hasn’t budged. Sen. Shaheen tried to change the law for the 2012 budget without success. Her amendment then and now would permanently allow servicewomen to obtain safe and affordable abortions on their bases or through the military’s health network. The Military Access to Reproductive Care and Health for Military Women Act would require Tricare, the military’s health insurance, to cover the cost of abortions in the case of rape or incest. It would also allow servicewomen to obtain abortions for other reasons at military health centers if they pay for them out of their pockets.
Civilians and servicewomen ought to be able to obtain this still legal procedure for whatever reason and have it covered by their insurance. But we’re a infuriatingly long way from that.
Retired Commander Joellen Oslund, the Navy’s first woman helicopter pilot in 1974, thinks extending abortion care for rape victims is a step that should attract less opposition. She told Mother Jones reporter Kate Sheppard: “We lost these privileges and these rights a little bit at a time, we’re going to have to get them back a little bit at a time. This is the one piece that’s probably the least controversial, and helps the most people.”
Stand with Servicewomen, which produced the ad at the top of this post, is fighting for simple justice. Nearly 400,000 women now serve in the armed forces, more of them officially or unofficially in combat and support roles that put them in harm’s way every day. It’s bad enough that, after all these years, sexual assault in the military is not taken as seriously as it ought to be. For servicewomen not to have the costs of the consequences of some of these assaults covered by their health insurance adds insult to injury. Opponents of the Shaheen Amendment and the MARCH Act should be ashamed. But shame seems as foreign to them as commonsense.
The Troubadour has posted about this subject here.