New York Though rape is a problem of deep concern to the U.S. military, its health plan doesn’t cover abortions for victims who become pregnant — a policy that indignant critics are now pushing to change.
The campaigners include members of Congress, the American Civil Liberties Union, and veterans such as Jessica Kenyon, who says her Army career derailed after she was raped and impregnated by a fellow soldier while serving in South Korea in 2006.
Kenyon, who remembered herself as a gung-ho private hoping to advance through the ranks, said the incident led to her discharge, and she miscarried after flying back to the U.S.
“Military health insurance doesn’t allow abortion coverage in cases of rape, and I was unable to have a safe abortion off-base, so I was stuck,” she said. “If I’d had that option, I would have had a chance to keep my career in the Army.”
For decades, policies enacted by Congress have prohibited the use of federal funds for abortions — but generally these policies make exceptions for cases of rape and incest. The policy set by Congress for the armed forces in 1981, and still in effect, does not allow the military health care plan to make this exception.
It’s this discrepancy — putting servicewomen on a different plane than federal employees, federal prisoners and Medicaid recipients, for example — that fuels much of the anger among those trying to change the policy.
“The current policy is shameful,” said Dr. Katherine Scheirman, who served as an Air Force physician for 20 years. “Our military women, who serve and sacrifice for their country, should not have worse health care benefits than civilians who rely on the government for their insurance coverage.”
This week, Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif., and five Democratic colleagues introduced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would have changed the policy to allow abortion coverage in cases of rape.
The Republican-controlled House Rules Committee, as it sifted through scores of proposed amendments to the act, did not allow the Davis measure to advance to a stage where it could be debated. It issued no public explanation for the decision.
Davis, in a telephone interview, said the current policy was a particular burden to young, lowly paid servicewomen on duty in war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan where abortions are not available in civilian hospitals.
She cited one case of a soldier in Afghanistan who had to spend several weeks raising funds to pay for her abortion while soldier who allegedly raped her was awaiting trial.
“These women are risking their lives for us — and we abandon them,” Davis said.
ACLU legislative counsel Vania Leveille said the effort to change the policy would now shift to the Democratic-controlled Senate, with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., offering to work on the issue. Leveille also said the Obama administration would be asked to engage more actively in trying to make the change.
The current policy is explicit, prohibiting payment for abortions “with one single exception — where the life of the mother would be endangered if the fetus were carried to term.” Abortions in cases of rape, fetal abnormality or for mental health reasons are not covered.
Debate over the abortion policy comes against a backdrop of widespread concern over the risk of sexual assault faced by the more than 400,000 women serving in the military.
The Defense Department said there were 3,158 reports of sexual assault involving service members last year. A pending federal lawsuit filed on behalf of victims contends sexual assaults are nearly twice as common within the military as in civilian society, and cites data suggesting that nearly one in three women reports being sexually assaulted during their military service.