Women in the military would finally have the same rights to reproductive health services as the civilians they protect, under an amendment offered by U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), strongly supported by U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and included in the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act approved today by the Senate Armed Services Committee. The amendment would put Department of Defense rules on abortion care in line with other federal policies by giving women in uniform who are the victims of rape and incest the right to access affordable abortion care.
"This is about equity," said Senator Shaheen. "Civilian women who depend on the federal government for health insurance -- whether they are postal workers or Medicaid recipients -- have the right to access affordable abortion care if they are sexually assaulted. It is only fair that the thousands of brave women in uniform fighting to protect our freedoms are treated the same."
"It is an outrage and a national security risk that the women in our military do not have the same basic protections for reproductive health care as women across the U.S." said Senator Gillibrand, a co-sponsor of the amendment. "This is a strong step forward towards putting an end to this egregious injustice and allowing our women in uniform to exercise their right to reproductive health care."
The Shaheen Amendment passed in committee Thursday by a bipartisan vote of 16-10, with the support of both Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) and Ranking Member John McCain (R-AZ). The NDAA now heads to the full Senate for approval.
The amendment is similar to one offered by Shaheen last year that was blocked during floor debate. It is also similar to language included in the MARCH for Military Women Act (S. 1214), authored by Gillibrand and cosponsored by Shaheen.
Under current law, the Department of Defense only provides abortion care to servicewomen when a woman's life is in danger. There is no exemption for cases of rape or incest. Senator Shaheen's amendment would align military policy with the policy used for civilian federal employees by expanding the exemption to allow for funding of abortion care if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. The law would continue to prohibit the use of federal funds for abortion care in other circumstances.
Currently there are almost 214,000 women serving in the military. Those who have been sexually assaulted, especially those posted overseas, are forced to seek unsafe and unacceptable alternatives to abortion care.
Retired military officers have spoken up in opposition to the current policy.
"The Shaheen Amendment is greatly needed. It's simply unfair to deny our military women the same abortion coverage that other government employees have," said Dennis Laich, Major General, US Army (Ret.). "Our servicewomen fight every day for us -- it's time we fight for them."
"Women who put their lives on the line fighting for our freedom shouldn't be denied reproductive health care services," said Gale Pollock, Major General, US Army (Ret.). "The Shaheen Amendment restores fairness to discriminatory legislation that denies servicewomen access to the healthcare they need. At the very least, our servicewomen deserve the same level of coverage as other women who rely on the government for their health care."