The Femo: A war on two fronts

by Sarah Rubin

This week, the Senate is set to debate the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013, which authorizes federal money to be spent on the military and Department of Defense. But this fiscal year’s defense bill is carrying something else important: the Shaheen Amendment.

The Shaheen Amendment, named after sponsor Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) is a provision of the authorization bill that would expand reproductive health care and abortion access to military servicewomen in cases of rape or incest. According to the 2012 report for Congressional Research Service, the existing restrictive policy pertaining to access to abortions for women in the military dates back to a 1995 defense appropriations bill, which states that Department of Defense funds or facilities may not be used to perform abortions on military servicewomen unless her life is endangered.

The Shaheen Amendment is an attempt to increase military servicewomen’s access to safe, legal, and affordable abortion services. According to current policy, military servicewomen have access to privately funded abortions in military facilities only in cases of rape or incest. Many Republican legislators oppose any type of federal funding for abortion services, as demonstrated by numerous attempts to legally ban use of “taxpayer money” for abortions. Yet other women whose insurance is covered by the federal government, including “federal employees, members of Congress and their dependents, and Medicaid recipients” have access to abortion services in cases of rape or incest included in their health plans. Thus, military servicewomen who rely on federal government insurance coverage for their reproductive health needs must pay out-of-pocket for abortions resulting from rape or incest, while many other women do not.

Shaheen and supporters of the amendment rightfully recognize this issue as a matter of equality: Under current law, military servicewomen do not have equal access to reproductive health care services in comparison to their nonmilitary counterparts, yet they experience significantly higher rates of sexual assault and violence. Recent research indicates that one in three female servicewomen has been sexually assaulted. It is suspected that only 14 percent of sexual assaults in the military are officially reported, and it is thus estimated that around 19,000 sexual assaults occurred within the U.S. military in 2011.

The culture of sexual violence in the military is undoubtedly a dire and grave problem for the U.S. Armed Forces, and increased access to abortion services should by no means be viewed as a method of sexual assault prevention. However, given the increased risk of sexual assault and violence in this context, it should be indisputable that military servicewomen need the same ability to access affordable, safe, and legal abortion services as any other female American citizen.

This year, the Shaheen Amendment has generated a significant amount of support from both sides of the aisle: The Senate Armed Services Committee approved the amendment, with outspoken support from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Yet the political debate does not only find its roots in legislators’ reluctance to use federal dollars for abortion services. Some politicians, such as former vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, have unyieldingly supported legislation that bans all abortion services, even in cases of rape or incest. Legislation such as the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act” and the “Life at Conception Act” works to deny all women access to safe and legal abortions with no exceptions, citing “14th Amendment protections for unborn fetuses.” Thus, the Shaheen Amendment is sure to confront numerous political obstacles in the coming days: Even if the amendment does receive support in the Senate, it still has to pass through a joint committee meeting and a Republican-dominated House.

The Shaheen Amendment and the important disparity it addresses should continue to remind us that the War on Women is still waging and that those affected are not only American women at home, but also those who so fittingly serve in our armed forces. Like all American female citizens, they need access to safe, legal, and affordable reproductive health care services.

Our legislators need to take action to protect those women who work hard to protect us. They should not have to wage war on two fronts.