Sex and the Single Woman Peace Corps Volunteer: No Equity

Thirty-one years ago, my former husband Tim and I did what thousands of (mostly) young Americans have done every year since 1961: We set off as Peace Corps volunteers. Unlike most, we had the added adventure of becoming parents while on assignment.

Throughout my pregnancy, I had assistance from a supportive Peace Corps network. I was married and had an “acceptable” pregnancy. But things would have been very different—then and to this day—if I had been single or had wanted an abortion.

Peace Corps is a model for international volunteer programs, in part due to the emphasis it places on volunteers’ health. From the moment we arrived in Tunisia, Peace Corps staff made sure we had regular check-ups and  knew to contact the Peace Corps nurse if anything went wrong. Indeed, several months into our placement, Tim was diagnosed with acute appendicitis and had emergency surgery in an excellent private hospital. Even though we were living in spartan quarters in the market town of Siliana—hardly more than a wide, dusty spot in the road—we received the same health services as diplomats in the capital, Tunis.

Peace Corps’ emphasis on good health also extended to sex. Condoms and other birth control methods were readily available, and we were encouraged to use them. But underlying this openness about sexual health was a clear message that pregnancy was not considered an acceptable condition for an unmarried volunteer. Single motherhood was not an image that Peace Corps wanted to broadcast. Only in a few countries could a volunteer stay if she became pregnant. There had to be high-quality medical facilities available and she had to be in good standing: good health, stable placement, stable marriage. Anything less and a pregnant woman was sent home.

Tim and I were considered model volunteers; he worked in dairy production and I was an extension worker in beekeeping. We enjoyed our work, felt we were gaining as much as we were giving and had a good relationship with Peace Corps staff.  Even though our pregnancy wasn’t perfectly timed, Tim and I wanted to stay in Tunisia. My assignment was changed so that I didn’t spend so much time walking the hills in my rural extension job, and toward the end of my pregnancy we moved closer to Tunis so I could be near my obstetrician.

When I delivered our beautiful girl, Meghan, it was in a modern hospital with expert medical staff.

But I was, and remain, acutely aware that I had an “acceptable” pregnancy. Volunteers facing an unplanned pregnancy were and are still treated very differently. Unmarried women who want to go through with their pregnancy are required to leave their post. And whether married or single, women who seek an abortion are flown to the U.S. on the pretense of medical need. They are left to arrange and pay for the procedure on their own, then return to their post as if nothing happened.

Volunteers are governed by a law passed in 1979 that prohibits Peace Corps from covering abortion care for volunteers (but not staff) for any reason. In 34 years, nothing has changed. Two things gall me about this.

First, there’s the silence imposed on a woman’s unplanned pregnancy and decision to seek an abortion. This silence, judgment and temporary exclusion from service is abortion stigma, and it can have devastating effects on women. They may delay seeking abortion care, thus forcing them to have a more difficult or expensive procedure, or they may seek a clandestine, unsafe procedure rather than confess the pregnancy.

I’m also upset by the blatant hypocrisy of this policy. While Peace Corps will cover every other medical need a volunteer might have, it won’t extend that coverage to abortion—not even if a woman’s life or health are in danger or if she has been a victim of rape—a significant risk for women volunteers who often live in rural and conservative communities. The law is not only hypocritical, it’s discriminatory: It only affects women, who make up 60 percent of Peace Corps volunteers. Virtually all other women who have federal health coverage—including federal employees [pdf], women enrolled in Medicaid [pdf] or women in the military—abortion is at least covered in cases of rape, incest and life endangerment.

Earlier this year, the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), a champion for reproductive rights throughout his long career, introduced the Peace Corps Equity Act, legislation that would begin to balance the scales for women in Peace Corps. Following his death, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) stepped in to carry on his work, standing up for Peace Corps volunteers just as she stood up for women in the military last year with similar legislation. Thanks to their leadership, the Foreign Operations Appropriations bill contains language that will ensure that Peace Corps volunteers have the same rights as other women under federal health plans.

This summer I was thrilled to walk my beautiful baby—now an intelligent and stunning 29-year old woman—down the aisle at her wedding. I am grateful for all the support that Peace Corps gave Tim and me to bring her into this world. All women should have that support when faced with decisions about pregnancy, whatever their outcome.

Please join me in showing support for women in the Peace Corps by signing this petition so that we can bring an end to this inequity!

Read more Ms. Blog coverage on this issue here.

Peace Corps logo from Wikimedia Commons


Katie Early is Director of Development at Ipas, an international reproductive health organization based in Chapel Hill, N.C.