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“You’re on Your Own:” Assault and Abortion in the Armed Forces

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December 3, 2012

“It is horrible enough to be sexually assaulted; when that assault results in an unwanted pregnancy, it begins the trauma anew.”

One rape that goes unpunished in the U.S. military would be wrong, but in our military, there are thousands. There were nearly 3,200 reported cases of sexual assault in the military last year, but a Pentagon survey shows the actual number was close to 19,000 because most aren’t reported.

Despite the high numbers of sexual assault in the United States military, women who become pregnant as a result of rape while serving in the military are denied abortion coverage under their health plans.  Last Wednesday, Senate decided that this policy will remain in place.  Under current policy, pregnant women in the military are only able to use their insurance plans to pay for abortions if the pregnancy threatens the life of the pregnant woman.

Say a servicewoman was deployed to Iraq.  There, she could not get an abortion by local law, so she then must return to the States, if she could convince her commander to let her go.  Upon her return, she must pay for the procedure in full and out of pocket.  As you can see, the policies are unfairly stacked against servicewomen who are raped and become pregnant.

In contrast, civilians who work for the government or use Medicaid can use their health insurance to pay for abortions, not only in life-threatening situations, but also in cases of rape and incest.  Additionally, rape survivors in federal prisons receive government-funded abortion coverage. Yes, abortion becomes an option if the woman’s life is endangered; in this situation, she either pays a pretty penny for private care or seeks health care outside of the military system.  This is all to say, U.S. servicewomen remain the only federal workers denied coverage in cases of rape.

Let’s think about the racial and socioeconomic implications.  Not surprisingly, most rape survivors in the military are junior enlisted women.  Enlisted servicemen and servicewomen earn less pay and often come from families who cannot afford to help them.  So, these abortion policies disproportionately affect women who are already disadvantaged – women of color and women with a lower socioeconomic status.

In recent months, the military has made internal/structural changes in an effort to reduce sexual harassment and assault through education and prevention programs. I say, Brava. This is a step in the right direction – though only time will tell how effective these programs will actually be.  In addition to internal efforts, all eyes are on Congress to change the policy behind the problems.

Last Thursday, the Obama Administration released an official statement that communicates support for military survivors of rape and their right to access abortion services. The statement calls for changes to the National Defense Authorization Act for 2013, which among other things, backs an amendment that would allow servicewomen to use their insurance to cover an abortion in cases of rape or incest. It would also provide access to elective abortions for all servicewomen and military dependents when they use their own funds; this includes servicewomen overseas.

In other words, the proposed amendment would grant servicewomen the same rights as civilian women with regard to federal policies that provide affordable abortion care to survivors of rape and incest.  To sum it all up, I believe that our country’s bravest women should not ever feel that she has to seek dangerous alternatives after rape because their health care fails to provide the care they (may) need.

 

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