A Victory For Female Volunteers In The Peace Corps

The long, long battle to provide abortion funding to members of the Peace Corps may be over soon. A House committee advanced a Peace Corps abortion coverage amendment on Monday by a rare voice vote. The bill would allow Corps members to use their federal-funded health insurance for abortions in the cases of rape, incest and mother’s health. It’s a small but important victory; reproductive rights activists who have been campaigning for improved health care and protection for Peace Corps' female volunteers.

Since 1979, Peace Corps members have to pay out of pocket for an abortion, even in cases of rape, incest or when a woman's life is at risk. A rider attached to the federal appropriations provision that funds the Peace Corps bars members from using their health insurance for abortions. For the last two years, President Obama has had to step in and issue emergency abortion funding for the overseas volunteers.

However, federal employees, women who use Medicaid, female armed service members and women in federal prisons can use federal funds for an abortion procedure in the case of rape, incest or endangered health. The new Peace Corps amendment seeks to rectify that double standard.

"It is absolutely unconscionable that female Peace Corps volunteers who are victims of sexual assault, or whose pregnancies endanger their lives, are not afforded the same health care access as virtually all other women with federal health coverage," Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), who sponsored the Peace Corps Equity Act of 2014, told The Huffington Post.

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The fight to overturn the Peace Corps' abortion ban has been pressing on for years. The rider barring abortion funding has been tacked onto the federal appropriations bill each year — and passed, no questions asked.

In 2013, it was the late Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) who took up the challenge, pressing his fellow colleagues to pass the Peace Corps Equity Act of 2013. Following Lautenberg's death, Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) continued his fight.

"Extending basic reproductive health care services to female Peace Corps volunteers is long overdue," Shaheen said in a recent statement. "Peace Corps volunteers face inherent risks living and working abroad."

These "inherent risks" for female Peace Corps volunteers, who make up 63 percent of the Corps, include rape and sexual assault. According to the Peace Corps, 22 female volunteers each year were the victims of rape or attempted rape between 2000 and 2009. More than 1,000 Peace Corps volunteers also reported sexual assaults during that time. The agency admits that incidences of rape and sexually assault are most likely much higher, considering sex crimes tend to go underreported.

A just-released study from the University of Ottawa and Cambridge Reproductive Health Consultants found that of the 362 women who participated, 18 reported a personal abortion experience while in service; 32 women reported a personal experience of rape or sexual assault; 40 participants reported on the rape or sexual assault experience of someone else. The study added that the women had no idea about the Peace Corps anti-abortion policy until after they became pregnant.

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The Senate Appropriations Committee finally decide it was time for a change, and approved the Peace Corps act included in the Senate Foreign Operations Appropriations bill in August 2013. The act not only allowed funding for abortions for Peace Corps volunteers, but also repealed the so-called Global Gag Rule, which prohibits family planning funds from being distributed to international health organizations that provide or support abortions. However, the progress was short-lived: the House Appropriations Committee blocked the abortion provision from moving forward.

Now, it looks like the tide is changing. This is the first time both the House and Senate committees have approved of federal abortion funding for Peace Corps volunteers, and also the first time . For the House Appropriations Committee, which is controlled by Republican members, to take the Senate's lead and approve the Peace Corps abortion provision is a major step — and a big win for reproductive rights activists.

Of course, the bill now has to pass the GOP-controlled House, which won't be easy. After all, we are talking about the same House that passed a 20-week abortion ban last summer.

Image: Flickr/National Museum of American History