One of the most compelling issues discussed in this year’s presidential elections was a woman’s right to choose. While woman’s rights advocates are rejoicing in re-electing President Barack Obama and electing a record number of women into Congress, the country remains deeply divided on the issue of abortion. But under the current law, if a servicewoman is raped while defending her country, she has to pay out of her own pocket for an abortion procedure.
It’s no secret that President Obama and Congress have to deal with a myriad of issues, including fiscal responsibility, jobs and the economy. However an important bill sponsored by Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and up for Senate approval this week, can provide reproductive health care for those military women who have to undergo the physical and psychological pain associated with an unwanted pregnancy, particularly in the vicious instance of rape or incest.
On a page taken from Senator Shaheen’s website, the Shaheen Amendment would give U.S. servicewomen the “same rights to reproductive health services as the civilians they protect.” In other words, military women would have the same rights as their civilian counterparts who receive federal health insurance for abortions, including women who work for the post office and other federal employees, women who use Medicaid and even women who have been raped while serving time in federal prison.
Under the current law, the Department of Defense (DoD) will allow for an abortion procedure on a servicewoman only if her life is in danger. And surprisingly, in the case of rape or incest, servicewomen and members of military families must cover the cost for the procedure themselves, which may be as much as one-third of an enlisted soldier’s monthly income. Equally as troubling is the estimate of 19,000 sexual assaults a year and of that total, some 300 victims become become pregnant. Furthermore, since the U.S. entered into war after the horrific events of September 11, 2001, it is estimated that 200,000 military sexual assaults have occurred, with nearly 90 percent committed against servicewomen. Moreover, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, approximately one in three servicewomen are victims of sexual assault, which suggests that women in the military “are more likely to be raped by a fellow solider than attacked by the enemy.”
According to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, less than 20 percent of those assaults were reported and less than six percent of all cases resulted in a conviction by courts martial. Panetta’s announcement in January may have been precipitated by the premiere of the award winning documentary, “The Invisible War”, that was set to open just two days later at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. The film reveals the widespread sexual abuse against U.S. servicewomen and has been credited towards exposing “America’s best and most shameful secret”, while also creating increased national awareness of what has been described as an “epidemic.” It’s quite clear that the DoD, elected officials and military leaders must do a far better job in eliminating sexual assaults within the nation’s military and assist servicewomen who are victims of sexual abuse and rape.
In May, the Shaheen Amendment received bi-partisan approval from the Senate Armed Services Committee, whose members include Senator John McCain (R-Ariz) and Senator Scott Brown (R-Mass). The Shaheen Amendment has been included in the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (S.3254, Sec. 711) and has been placed on the calendar this week for Senate discussion. If passed, this provision will amend Section 1093(a) of Title 10, U.S. Code and thus the health care provided to servicewomen would be commensurate with their civilian counterparts.
According to StandwithServicewomen.org and other sources, there are more than 400,000 servicewomen in today’s U.S. military, with more than half that number in active service, comprising 14 percent of all American troops. It’s fair to say that these women deserve the very same type of health benefits as the federal employees or the Medicaid recipients they protect. While the issue of abortion continues to polarize a divided nation, it certainly seems fair to remove this ban on the military insurance program and give these brave servicewomen the same reproductive health choices they deserve. Even Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said he was in favor of abortion in the case of rape or incest. Judging by the results of the 2012 presidential elections, particularly in the lopsided defeats of several anti-abortion candidates, it appears that the majority of American voters, given the opportunity to view this amendment, would support it.