A renewed push to
expand abortion coverage to military women who have been raped threatens
upcoming defense spending and programmatic negotiations in Congress.
An amendment sponsored by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) would allow
the federal health care plans of servicewomen to cover abortions if they
have been raped or are the victims of incest. It’s included in the
Senate defense authorization bill, now awaiting Senate floor debate.
But the House-passed bill doesn’t include a similar provision,
setting up the contentious abortion issue as a potential sticking point
when the two measures reach a joint House-Senate conference committee
For abortion rights activists, the issue is equality.
“It’s a real injustice to the more than 200,000 women who are serving
on active duty in our military,” Shaheen said in an interview. “They
should have the same rights to affordable reproductive health services
as the people they’re protecting. This is about equality for these
Under current military policy, the Defense Department provides health
care coverage of abortions to servicewomen only if their lives are in
danger. In other federal health care programs such as Medicaid, however,
the Hyde Amendment also allows for coverage of abortions in cases of
rape or incest.
“This is an aberration, and it was a deliberate aberration,” Shaheen
said. The discrepancy between policies isn’t an oversight, she said.
Congress deliberately changed the provision in the 1981 defense bill to
remove all other abortion allowances.
Repeated attempts to expand coverage of abortions for military women
have been unsuccessful. An effort by Shaheen and others to bring the
issue to a floor vote last year during negotiations over the defense
bill was blocked.
But this time around, Shaheen’s amendment was approved by the Senate
Armed Services Committee with support from both the chairman, Sen. Carl
Levin (D-Mich.), and the ranking Republican, John McCain of Arizona.
Committee approval “was very important in terms of the potential to
keep people on board as the legislation goes through the process,”
Shaheen said. For abortion foes, taking the language out of the bill is
more difficult than striking down belated attempts to include it.
Still, the Shaheen amendment faces a tough obstacle in the Republican-controlled House.
“There are persons such as myself who do not want the government
funding abortions,” Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) said. “This would be
getting a foot in the door of taxpayer money being used for abortions.”
Wilson said he expects a floor fight over the issue, adding he would
prefer to ramp up prosecution of people who commit rape and incest than
expand abortion coverage.
Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) brought up the issue on the Senate floor in June, urging the House not to block the amendment.
“I hope that we can work together on a truly bipartisan and bicameral basis,” Brown said.
Both sides, however, agree that the abortion issue is a symptom of a larger problem of sexual violence in the military.
The Defense Department has acknowledged 3,191 reported sexual
assaults within the military in 2011. And taking into account the
likelihood of unreported assaults, the actual statistic could approach
19,000 annually, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in January.
Women make up a larger portion of the U.S. military than ever before.
The 1.4 million-member active-duty force includes about 205,000 women,
nearly 15 percent of the force, the Pentagon reported in February.
Sexual violence in the military is “a stain on the good honor of the
great majority of our troops and their families,” Secretary of Defense
Leon Panetta said, according to a report by the American Forces Press
“Unfortunately, I know that when we take women into violent places,
they experience violent things,” said retired Maj. Gen. Gale Pollock,
who was commander of the Army Medical Command, chief of the Army Nurse
Corps and acting surgeon general of the Army in 2007.
“The reality is that sexual assault happens around the world,”
Pollock said, and women in the military can be victimized by the enemy,
contractors and even colleagues.
Advocates for Shaheen’s amendment also said better prevention of
these crimes is necessary, but she sees that as a separate issue.
Retired Army Maj. Gen. Dennis Laich, who’s spoken out against sexual
violence in the military, appeared in the documentary “The Invisible
War,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and has
been making waves in the military community.
“We have a history of these things going on,” Laich said, pointing to
sex crime allegations against three Air Force Academy cadets in
January, the 1991 Talhook scandal, as well as this year’s high-profile
sexual assault investigations of drill instructors at Lackland Air Force
Base in San Antonio.
“The Shaheen amendment will be a step in the right direction, but the
fact of the matter is that sexual violence in the military is a
cultural issue,” Laich said. “The Old Boys network in the military needs
to be put in the trash bin.”
Both Pollock and Laich have been vocal advocates for the Shaheen
amendment, arguing it’s wrong for servicewomen not to have the same
access to abortion care as the federally covered women they’re serving.
“The majority of women are afforded a choice after they’ve been
sexually assaulted as to how they want to manage that,” Pollock said.
The issue is about equity, not politics, she said. “I do not think that military women should be political pawns.”
Austin Wright contributed to this report.
They're not even asking for special rights. Just the same rights civilians have.