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U.S. military's abortion policy is out of date

The government's military healthcare program denies coverage of abortion care for servicewomen unless their lives are endangered by the pregnancy. That's wrong.

June 30, 2011|By Lawrence J. Korb

More than 255,000 women have served in the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. Twenty-one percent of the 2011 graduating class of sailors at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis were women; of the Marines, 17%. The Air Force Academy and West Point graduated similar percentages: nearly 20% and more than 16%, respectively. All told, women account for nearly 15% of active-duty military and National Guard troops, and nearly 20% of the reserves of all branches.

Such numbers should be celebrated as evidence of our nation's and our military's progress. Our servicewomen play an integral role in our military operations. I know that from my own service as a naval flight officer in the 1960s and from my tenure as assistant secretary of Defense for manpower in the Reagan administration. In 1983, President Reagan was under pressure from people such as conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly to cut the number of women in the military. What I told him is as true now as it was then: "We couldn't go to war without them, and we couldn't win it without them."

The Department of Defense, however, has been slow to adapt its institutional culture to the military's changing demographics. Antiquated and ideological statutory restrictions related to women's reproductive healthcare are emblematic of this tension.

Under current law, the government's military healthcare program denies coverage of abortion care for servicewomen unless their lives are endangered by the pregnancy. The current ban even denies coverage to women who have been raped. In the case of rape, a woman may obtain an abortion at a military medical facility if she is willing to pay with private funds. In all other circumstances, servicewomen cannot obtain an abortion at a military medical facility, even if they are willing to pay with private funds.

The issue of abortion coverage is especially important because the incidence of sexual violence in the armed services persists. Despite the Pentagon's no-tolerance policy toward sexual assault, more than 3,000 cases were reported last year. The overwhelming majority of victims were women under the age of 25 and from junior enlisted ranks. In fact, the actual rates of assault are estimated to be at least four times higher because women often do not report such abuse out of concern that it could negatively affect or even destroy their careers.

The lack of abortion coverage is grossly unfair not least because U.S. servicewomen are uniquely denied coverage in cases of rape. Other federal employees and civilian women who obtain their healthcare through federal programs such as Medicaid, Medicare, Indian Health Services and the federal prisons all receive abortion coverage in cases of rape.

Members of Congress and advocacy groups such as the Military Officers Assn. of America assert that our enlisted men and women and veterans deserve more and better healthcare services — that their service and sacrifice demands nothing less. Why then are our servicewomen treated differently from the civilians they protect?

Our civilian and military leadership have wisely tried to keep ideological and cultural battles out of the decision-making process on issues that directly affect our servicemen and woman. Instead, they have correctly focused on meeting the real needs of our troops. Congress may claim that it does the same, but in this instance it has not.

I was disappointed by the House Rules Committee's decision to block a floor vote on an amendment to this year's National Defense Authorization Act that would have repealed the ban on abortion coverage in cases of rape for women in the military. The committee squandered an opportunity to give servicewomen a benefit that their civilian counterparts already possess. That decision was inexcusable and was motivated, I suspect, by ideology and abortion politics, not by the best interests of our troops.

I am heartened, though, by the recent introduction in the House and Senate of the MARCH (Military Access to Reproductive Care and Health) for Military Women Act. This legislation would take an important step forward by covering abortion in cases of rape and allowing servicewomen to use their own funds to obtain abortion care at military health facilities. It should be championed by civilian and military leadership and passed by this Congress.

The accomplishments of servicewomen strengthen our military. Congress should honor their commitment, service and sacrifice by ensuring that they are treated fairly in all policy matters. At minimum, our military women deserve equal, not less, access to reproductive health services.

Lawrence J. Korb, an assistant secretary of Defense from 1981 to 1985, is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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