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Sending Our Service Women to Back Alleys

by Chris Lombardi


 June 10, 2012
General Gale Pollock, former Army Surgeon General, was blunt: "When a servicewoman becomes pregnant due to an act of violence, she should not have to scrounge to meet her medical needs." She was decrying the current policy that prevents military facilities from performing abortions unless the woman's life is in danger, even when the pregnancy is the result of sexual assault or incest.
Last month, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved legislation that would reverse that policy by granting coverage for abortion care for women in the military or military families in the case of rape and incest.  It comes in the form of an amendment sponsored by U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH).  
The Shaheen Amendment is part of this year's defense funding authorization in the National Defense Authorization Act. It would whittle back some of the damage done to abortion care under prohibitions against allocating federal funds or services for abortion care in the Hyde Amendment, first passed in 1976 and reauthorized since then.  
As Washington's battle around women's health grows fiercer, the Shaheen Amendment goes before the full Senate amid shocking statistics about rape in the military. Last year, according to the Pentagon, there were 19,000 cases of sexual assault on female servicemembers, most allegedly perpetrated by men in uniform. Those facts are brought to painful life in the Sundance-winning documentary,The Invisible War (premiering nationally June 22).
"Women make up 15 percent of our military," Shaheen said at a June press conference. "We tell them when they sign up that they'll be taken care of. They make an average of $18,000 a year. Yet if they find themselves pregnant, they're denied [abortion] care at military hospitals, even if they've been subject to sexual assault."
Even as reproductive rights and access to abortion care are under continuous attack in the U.S. Congress and state legislatures, and undermined by an escalating number of restrictions, the treatment of women in the military lands hard. Denial of abortion coverage in the case of sexual assault is especially frustrating: "It makes me incredibly angry," said Gen. Pollock, who served for 27 years, including as the Army Surgeon General. Servicewomen, along with military wives and daughters, who are also affected, "sacrifice for their country," said Gen. Pollack. But when it comes to adequate healthcare coverage, "Congress has said to our servicewomen, 'You're on your own.' This is wrong," she said.
The Shaheen Amendment, similar to a bill blocked last year from Senate reconsideration, was approved in committee two weeks ago by a vote of 16-10. Crucially, the "yes" vote included the committee's co-chairs, Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Carl Levin (D-MI). With known support from Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), Ranking Member of the House Armed Services Committee, three of the four members who will be part of the House-Senate conference that produces the final bill, are behind the Shaheen Amendment.
Unlike the other times that such a measure has failed, the bill's prospects of success are improved by its inclusion in the omnibus defense bill, which has often sped implementation of pioneering defense reforms (such as the repeal of "Don't Ask Don't Tell" or the 2000 Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act.
"In 50 years, we've never not passed an NDAA," Shaheen said. The other big difference, she added, is the support of Stand with Servicewomen, a coalition of hundreds of retired military officers, including Gen. Pollock.
Shaheen did not mention the third major difference between the Shaheen Amendment and the MARCH Act  (Military Access to Reproductive Care and Health), attempted in the 2011-2012 session. MARCH included a provision that, if passed, would have allowed women who were not victims of assault to terminate their pregnancies, at their own expense, at military facilities. Rep. Susan Davis (D-CA) noted previously that, without such a provision, the 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."
Air Force veteran Julie, quoted in a report by the National Abortion Federation, remembers her experience in Japan: "I was turned away by my American doctors on base.... I was given no translators, no explanations, no transportation and no help for a legal medical procedure."  A recently-published study in Reproductive Health found that, "With no perceived alternatives, some women considered unsafe methods to terminate the pregnancy themselves."
Even with its narrow scope in addressing only cases of rape and incest, the Shaheen Amendment  is opposed by some reflexively anti-abortion legislators. Stand with Servicewomen is running an ad campaign, featuring retired officers and commanders, to ensure that the bill doesn't fall victim to the poisonous environment around reproductive health.
Shaheen is optimistic that that won't happen: "The bipartisan support in the Senate Armed Services Committee reflects what most feel -- they support keeping our promise to the sons and daughters of America."

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Chris Lombardi is the Associate Editor of On The Issues Magazine.
See Military Women: Unfair Denial of Abortion Access Needs to End</a> by Marjorie Signer in the Cafe of the Summer 2011 edition of On The Issues Magazine.
Also see Paradoxes of Women in Uniform Take Deep Listening by Chris Lombardi in the Summer 2011 edition of On The Issues Magazine.
Also see Repeal Hyde: Even Republicans Know It's Wrong to Politick With Women's Lives by Loretta J. Ross in the Cafe of the Spring 2009 edition of On The Issues Magazine.
Also see Politicized by Henry Hyde by Merle Hoffman in the Fall 1983 edition of On The Issues Magazine.


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