Military women: unfair denial of abortion access needs to end

by Marjorie Signer, cross-posted at On The Issues Magazine

Jessica Kenyon was one of more than 400,000 women who serve in the Armed Forces at any given time. It can be a brutal life. Women in the military are twice as likely to be sexually assaulted as women in civilian life, according to a pending ACLU lawsuit. Yet, though rape is a problem of deep concern to the U.S. military, its health plan doesn’t cover abortions for rape victims who become pregnant. It’s a callous, unjust policy – especially at a time when rape in the military is at crisis levels. Abortion restrictions are a moral issue; they deny women the ability to act according to the dictates of their conscience.

Senate Democrats are trying to change the policy with a bill called MARCH for Military Women Act (Military Access to Reproductive Care and Health), backed by the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC) and numerous other advocates. The MARCH Act would (1) restore abortion coverage to military women who are the survivors of rape or incest and (2) lift the ban on women in the military using their own funds for an abortion in military facilities when serving overseas.

What happened to Jessica Kenyon demands our attention. Kenyon joined the U.S. Army in 2005.

I was raped by a fellow soldier when I was stationed in Korea. I found out I was pregnant as a result of the rape when my commander called me into his office one day to charge me with adultery. A doctor at the medical center had told my commander — but not me — that I was pregnant. I hadn’t reported the rape because I was trying to “soldier on” and I didn’t trust my chain of command. This is an environment where women are constantly targeted for various forms of abuse. As it turns out I was not charged, not because I was raped, but because I was divorced.

Then I faced the fact that 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. I was discharged from the military due to the trauma of the rape and attacks. I flew back home to the U.S. after being discharged from the Army for my own safety and ended up miscarrying.

The United States military provides health insurance for members of the Armed Forces and their families through the Department of Defense’s Military Health System. By federal statute, the Department of Defense is barred from providing coverage for abortion except where a pregnant woman’s life is endangered; there is no exception for rape and incest. By contrast, the federal bans on abortion coverage for women enrolled in Medicaid, disabled women enrolled in Medicare, federal employees (other than members of the Armed Services), women who receive health care through the Indian Health Service and women in federal prisons, all include exceptions for rape survivors. The only other federal coverage that does not include a rape exception is the ban on abortion coverage for women in the Peace Corps.

It’s this discrepancy of putting servicewomen and military dependents on a different plane that the MARCH Act seeks to rectify. Rep. Susan Davis (CA), a sponsor of a Democratic measure to permit debate on the abortion ban that died in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives in May, said that the current policy is a particular burden to young, low-paid servicewomen 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 the soldier who allegedly raped her was awaiting trial.

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. Restoring abortion coverage to our military women who are survivors of rape and incest would bring the Department of Defense in line with the policy that governs other federal programs.

As for Jessica Kenyon, she is now a full-time advocate for military victims of sexual assault. From her home in Bethlehem, Pa., she runs two online support services — BenefitingVeterans.org and MilitarySexualTrauma.org. Like many Americans, she believes that the abortion issue should not be decided by ideology, but rather by what’s best for the troops’ well-being.

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