By William Frothingham
A proposal by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen to allow federal health plans to cover abortions for women in the military in the case of rape or incest took another legislative step forward late Tuesday.
The full Senate unanimously approved the National Defense Authorization Act, which contains Shaheen's provision. That legislation authorizes Defense Department programs for the 2013 fiscal year. Earlier, Shaheen's proposal on abortion coverage had been added to the legislation when it cleared the Senate Armed Services Committee, on which she serves.
Her plan now faces a final legislative hurdle: The Senate version of the defense authorization bill goes to a conference committee with the House, which passed its version of the defense bill in May. The House version of the legislation does not contain the rape or incest exception.
Currently, the Defense Department only provides coverage for abortion if a servicewoman's life is in danger.
"We have more than 200,000 women in the military serving in active duty," Shaheen told a Wednesday press conference at which she appeared with several retired military officers. "They are pilots, they are drivers, they're mechanics, they're medics, they're special ops. They serve in the line of fire in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and yet they don't have the same coverage as the women that they are putting their lives on the line to protect."
Although Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who also serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, opposed the Shaheen amendment in committee, she expressed support for the provision in a letter to the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate Armed Services panels.
"While I strongly oppose abortion, I have also been clear that I support exceptions in cases when the life of the mother is endangered or in cases of rape or incest," Ayotte wrote in registering her support for the section of the bill that includes Shaheen's provision, and asking for it to be upheld in conference.
Ayotte was also among eight legislators to sign a letter that Shaheen sent to the leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services committees supporting the rape and incest exception. Among the other signers was Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
Shaheen said the last time the rape and incest provision made it this far in the legislative process was 2005, when it passed the Senate but was stripped out in the ensuing conference committee.
This time around, she noted that three out of the four committee leaders support the provision, including Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Armed Services Committee ranking member John McCain, R-Ariz., who voted in favor of the amendment in committee. In the House, Armed Services Committee ranking member Adam Smith, D-Wash., has sponsored legislation dealing with the same issue.
Shaheen said she also hopes House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard (Buck) McKeon, R-Calif., will be willing to leave the provision in the bill.
Levin said after passage of the Senate bill that he is "very optimistic" a final bill would emerge from House-Senate conference, while acknowledging the major challenge is time -- with the current session of Congress due to end in less than a month.
Although there is a general ban on abortion coverage for health care provided through the federal government, there are currently exemptions in several major programs -- including Medicaid, Medicare, and the Federal Employees' Health Benefit Program -- for cases in which a woman's life is in danger as well as rape and incest.
"This isn't about politics or ideology; it's about basic fairness and equity," said retired Major General Gale. Pollock, who was acting Surgeon General of the Army in 2007, during an appearance at Shaheen's press conference. "Women who serve our nation should not be treated as political pawns."