Women raped while in the US military are denied abortions. End this now

Posted on May 28, 2012

The Guardian, May 28, 2012 by

Could the March Act be the law that finally persuades America’s anti-choicers of the compassionate abortion argument?

“A female solider in Iraq is more likely to be attacked by a fellow soldier than killed by military fire,” declared a piece on rape in the US military in the Guardian last December. As if the details of ensuing isolation, lack of psychological support and risk of homelessness weren’t enough, one travesty was left out: unless life is at risk, military medical insurance does not fund abortion for women who are left pregnant after such attacks. Period.

Even if a woman can afford to pay for her own termination, military hospitals are currently outlawed from performing the procedure in cases that do not involve risk of life, rape or incest. The March Act, proposed by senators Kirsten Gillibrand, Barbara Boxer, Jeanne Shaheen, Patty Murray and Frank Lautenberg, seeks to change that. Endorsed by the Department of Defence, and given its appeal to patriotism as much as its pinpointing of this grievous human rights violation, can this be the law to finally persuade America’s anti-choicers of the compassionate abortion argument? Or will it merely be the exception that proves the rule?

Much of the current legislative restriction on civilian abortion in the US relates to the 1976 Hyde amendment, which declared that federal funding should not cover abortion (initially relating to services offered by the low-income healthcare provider Medicaid), except in cases of rape, incest or where the life of the mother was at risk. Its relevance was alarmingly renewed in March 2010 when Barack Obama signed an executive order reiterating that protection of federal funds to save the $940bn healthcare bill.

If that wasn’t regressive enough, the same allowance (although you can barely call it that) does not apply to women serving in the US military. Whether it’s an officer back at base camp, a fellow solider on the frontline in Afghanistan or an enemy freedom fighter in Iraq, a military woman with an unwanted pregnancy to contend with is on her own – and often in danger as a result of it, particularly when serving in countries where a thousand dollars couldn’t buy a safe, let alone a legal, termination. As Meghan Rhoad of Human Rights Watch has put it: “The Obama administration has taken some positive steps to address rape in the military, but it is hamstrung by legislation preventing the military from responding to the needs of rape victims.”

With more than 400,000 women in the US military and an estimated 19,000 sexual assaults each year, this is an alarmingly avoidable crisis for health, liberty and national security. Under the March Act, the Shaheen amendment, which specifically proposes extending federal funding to military women for abortion in cases of rape and incest, should come into force with the 2013 National Defence Authorisation Act, which allocates federal funds. But this is not the first time the issue has been raised, and previous debates on “the perennial issue” – as one anonymous Capitol Hill staffer quoted by CNN put it – have not rectified the basic inequity. Originally proposed in November 2011 as an amendment to the 2012 National Defence Authorisation Act, anti-choice senators refused to let it come to the floor.

Given the recent repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell”, the hope among the championing politicians and the vigour of Stand With Servicewomen campaigners, the time is ripe for giving military women “the rights of the constitution that they defend”, as congresswoman Louise Slaughter has put it. Otherwise, those that deny them that right (primarily, though not exclusively, the conservative right) risk exposing the hollowness of their patriotic rhetoric. For them, when it comes to reproductive rights, there are no deserving women.

Posted in: United States