It’s hard to believe that a woman serving in the armed forces today — who may be risking her life in dangerous situations — cannot get an abortion at a military hospital unless the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.
Not even if she wants to spend her own money for the procedure.
That’s “absolutely wrong,” Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) told me in a phone interview Monday. She introduced legislation Thursday that would change that. The Military Access to Reproductive Care and Health (MARCH) for Military Women Act would lift the ban on abortions at military hospitals for service women.
No taxpayer dollars would be spent, she assured me. The service woman would be required to pay for the abortion. And the “conscience clause” would remain in effect so that any military physician who did not want to perform the procedure would not be required to do so.
If passed by Congress, MARCH would lift the statutory ban that dates back to a time when men believed “women could not be trusted to make that decision, so we’ll just make it for them,” Slaughter, who’s co-chair of the House Pro-Choice Caucus, said.
Although an executive order by President Bill Clinton lifted the ban on privately funded abortions in 1993, two years later Congress passed legislation that only authorized abortions at overseas military facilities for U.S. service women in the case of rape or incest.
“Service women give the greatest sacrifice but are denied the same freedoms and liberties as their sisters enjoy,” Donna Crane, policy director for NARAL Pro Choice told me. “They’re actually denied their constitutional right to abortion.”
More than 200,000 women, including service members and the dependents of military personnel, rely on military hospitals for their health care. When service women cannot obtain abortions from military hospitals, they’re forced to seek out a provider in a country where conditions may not be sanitary and where the language may be a barrier, endangering their health, Slaughter pointed out.
It then becomes necessary to ask for leave from a commanding officer who may not be understanding of the situation, putting the woman’s military career at risk.
Last term Slaughter introduced a bill with a provision that allowed military women to receive insurance coverage for abortion due to rape or incest, which became known as the Shaheen Amendment and was passed as part of the National Defense Authorization Act of FY 13.
“The Pentagon knows we’re deadly serious,” Slaughter said. She cited a letter to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), from Elizabeth King, assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs, stating that the Department of Defense supports MARCH.
She believes the odds are in favor of her bill being passed. “Chances are better than they would have been three or four years ago,” she said. “I think more attention is being paid to the abuse of women and to the second-class citizenship of women in the military.”
She’s determined to improve the situation in the military for women. “I’ve been trying to make it easier for women in the military since I was elected,” Slaughter told me.
“We’ve come a long way.”
Diana Reese is a freelance journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.