Will Peace Corps Volunteers Finally Receive Abortion Coverage?

Flag_of_the_United_States_Peace_CorpsThe Senate Appropriations Committee recently approved a proposal to allow federal health care to cover abortions for Peace Corps volunteers in certain situations. The proposal is included in the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations bill, which next moves to a full-Senate vote.

The proposal mirrors the language of the Peace Corps Equity Act, a stand-alone bill introduced by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) on May 6. The act would extend volunteers’ health coverage to cover abortions in the case of rape, incest or endangerment of the woman’s life—the same coverage provided to nearly all other federal employees. In a visit to the Ms. and Feminist Majority Foundation offices in Los Angeles, Shaheen explained how her work on the Shaheen amendment (for women in the military) led her to work on a similar bill for Peace Corps volunteers:

A couple of years ago I started working on what was a miscarriage of justice: Women in the military who were victims of rape were not able to get federal coverage for their abortions. One of the things that came to the surface at that time was that other women in that group [not receiving abortion coverage] were women in the Peace Corps.

Under current rules, women Peace Corps volunteers are forced to choose between continuing their pregnancy and leaving the Peace Corps, or flying back to the United States and securing an abortion on their own. Shaheen first introduced the Peace Corps Equity Act in 2013 to correct this injustice. A similar provision passed the appropriations committee last year, but was ultimately removed from the federal budget by the House. Moving forward, Shaheen emphasized how women’s participation will be essential to getting this and other women’s rights legislation passed:

I remember Roe v. Wade; I remember the fight for contraceptives. Who would have thought we would be here in 2014 fighting the same battles? As women, we have to stand up.

Especially relevant in this case is the coverage of abortions for Peace Corps volunteers who have been raped. A recent report by Cambridge Reproductive Health Consultants found that 8.8 percent of female Peace Corp volunteers experienced a sexual assault while abroad. From 2000 to 2009, an average of 22 women per year reported rapes or attempted rapes while serving in the Peace Corps. Many volunteers allege that the Peace Corps does not provide adequate training on sexual assault and, according to survivors, those who are  assaulted are often subject to victim blaming by the organization.

In 2009, Peace Corps volunteer Kate Puzey was found dead after reporting a fellow volunteer for allegedly raping students in the school where she taught. Her story brought national attention to the safety of volunteers, and spurred legislative action focused on reducing sexual assault and protecting whistleblowers. Two years later, Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams publicly pledged to end the culture of “blaming the victim” that permeated the organization.

Today, according to former volunteer and rape survivor Christine Carcano, the Peace Corps staff was “amazing” when she reported her assault. But when it came to assisting with her abortion, she said, “their hands were tied.” Adequately addressing sexual assault in the Peace Corps means providing the medical support necessary in the case of pregnancy. The next step in supporting women like Carcano is changing the law to ensure Peace Corps volunteers who have been raped can get the health care they need.

Picture of Peace Corps flag courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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Emily Shugerman is a politics major at Occidental College and an intern at Ms. Follow her on Twitter.

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