The Washington Post

Women’s health groups want Peace Corps volunteers to have insurance coverage for abortions

If a Peace Corps volunteer is raped and becomes pregnant as a result, she has to pay for an abortion herself, because the federal government refuses to cover the cost.

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.

The Lautenberg bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), author of an amendment to the defense bill the president signed into law in January that repeals a ban on abortion coverage for women in the armed services who are victims of rape or incest. Military insurance had only covered abortions performed to save the woman’s life .

Advocates said they were encouraged by that change, and by passage in 2011 of a law that provides better protections for volunteers who report wrongdoing and provides them better training on how to avoid attacks and sexual assaults.

The Peace Corps has about 8,700 volunteers serving in 77 countries. About 60 percent are women. Every year, on average, 22 volunteers report being the victims of rape or attempted rape, the agency said. From 2000 to 2009, the last year for which statistics are available, more than 1,000 volunteers reported sexual assaults, including 221 rapes or attempted rapes.Experts say the incidence is likely higher.

Corps volunteer Carol Clark told a congressional panel in 2011 that she became pregnant after being raped by a Peace Corps employee during her tour of Nepal in 1984, and an agency official said she had to make a choice: Get an abortion or quit her service. But the agency would not pay for the abortion.

“It was just matter of fact, the way he said it,” Clark, now 51 and a teacher in North Carolina, said in an interview. A friend’s parents paid for the procedure, she said.

Mary Kate Shannon, 27, was raped twice during her 18-month tour in Peru, which ended four months ago. The first attack, in October 2011, was by a taxi driver who was convicted and sent to prison.

A year later she was attacked while on vacation with a Peruvian man who she said raped her in a youth hostel. The Peace Corps flew her back to Washington for counseling.

The agency’s international health coordinator told her the Peace Corps could not pay for an abortion if it turned out she was pregnant. It would, however, pay for parenting classes, Shannon said she was told.

“I kept saying, ‘But it was rape, I was raped,’ ” Shannon recounted in an interview.

Shannon said the woman told her to pay for the procedure from her $5,000 readjustment allowance.

“Thankfully, the pregnancy test was negative,” she said. “But I felt angry and so betrayed by what they told me.”

Kramer called the safety and security of volunteers “our highest priority” and cited new safeguards to reduce the risk of violence. But she said the issue “is about equal rights for our female volunteers.”

One of the reasons the rider was able to exempt volunteers from coverage provided to other federal employees is that volunteers technically are not federal workers, and not covered by the federal health plan.

Discuss this topic and other political issues in the politics discussion forums.

Lisa Rein covers the federal workforce and issues that concern the management of government.


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