Yet women on the paid Peace Corps staff, along with other federal employees, federal prisoners, women on Medicaid and Native Americans, have long received insurance coverage for abortions in cases of rape or incest or if their health is in danger. In January, women in the military got the same access.
The ban for Peace Corps volunteers has been in place since 1979, when Congress attached a rider to the agency’s annual appropriation amid other laws restricting federal funding for abortion. But now women’s health groups are pushing to strip it from federal law, hoping public opinion is on their side.
They’re emboldened by recent scrutiny from Congress of sexual assaults in the humanitarian agency and a growing number of Peace Corps volunteers who are speaking openly about their experiences.
Their efforts got a boost this month from the Obama administration, which put language in the proposed 2014 budget that allows federal coverage for abortions for Peace Corps volunteers in cases of rape, incest and when the woman’s health is endangered.
And Thursday, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) introduced a bill supporting the same coverage for volunteers that is offered to other women who get federal health benefits.
“This is really about fixing what feels like an antiquated provision [of law] that’s completely out of sync with the way we treat civil servants,” said Aram Schvey, policy counsel for foreign policy and human rights at the Center for Reproductive Rights.
Lautenberg, long an advocate for the Peace Corps and global women’s rights, said in a statement, “It is unacceptable that their own country restricts their access to care.”
Peace Corps spokeswoman Shira Kramer said in a statement that the agency supports a change that “provides female volunteers with the same rights and protections as many of their female colleagues.”
Antiabortion groups have vowed to fight removal of the ban, which they consider an effort by the Obama administration to expand abortion services. Americans United for Life said the Peace Corps is failing to keep volunteers safe.
“Rather than addressing the egregious security concerns that we should all have for these young women who are being sent in dangerous situations, the Obama administration and their allies are using the horrific events in . . . [their] lives to expand federal involvement in abortion,” Charmaine Yoest, the group’s president, said in a statement.
But the issue may prove tricky for lawmakers with antiabortion records. The issue of exceptions for rape and incest in abortion restrictions has become a hypersensitive issue since Missouri’s Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, Todd Akin, told a St. Louis television station last fall that “legitimate rape” victims rarely get pregnant. His comments helped cost him the election. Calls from The Washington Post to five House members and one senator went unreturned.