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Rep. Susan A. Davis Headshot

U.S. Servicewomen Left Out of Rape Exception

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The issue of abortion coverage for victims of rape was pushed into the national spotlight when my colleague on the House Armed Services Committee uttered his now infamous "legitimate rape" phrase.

The debate has centered on the biologically and ridiculously false claim that a woman's body can prevent itself from getting pregnant during a rape. Also generating considerable discussion is whether abortion coverage should be available in the instance of a pregnancy from rape.

While a ban currently exists on abortion coverage in federal insurance programs, within these plans there is an exception for rape survivors. Women enrolled in Medicare, Medicaid, the Indian Health Service and even women in federal prisons all have access to abortion coverage if their pregnancies are the result of a rape or if the woman's life is threatened. Federal health plans also provide for the exception of rape and life endangerment for federal employees.

The one exception to this is the more than 400,000 female servicemembers. Women in the military -- women who are putting their lives on the line every day for our freedom -- are not covered under their military health coverage if their pregnancy is the result of rape. An exception is allowed if the women's life is being threatened by the pregnancy.

When Congress debated the National Defense Authorization Act last year, some colleagues and I attempted to correct this injustice with an amendment to authorize coverage for abortion services in cases in which the pregnancy is the result of an act of rape or incest.

As is the procedure for amendments, I asked the House Rules Committee to allow my amendment to be debated and voted on during consideration of the defense bill on the House floor.

While the Democrats supported my amendment, the Republican majority on the committee opposed it. The amendment to grant coverage to servicewomen who are rape survivors was not ruled in order and it died in committee.

Driving the argument behind the amendment was the issue of sexual assault in the military. Along with the dangers that servicemembers face every day while serving their country there is a danger of sexual assault -- a serious problem within the ranks.

A report from the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office at the Department of Defense indicates that the vast majority of sexual assault victims are under the age of 25 and from junior enlisted ranks.

This means they are earning less pay and therefore less likely to be able to pay for additional medical expenses, often causing them to delay medical care in order to find necessary funds.

The House Armed Services Committee has worked for years to address sexual assault. While progress has been made on this front, there is much more to be done.

But we continue to add insult to injury by denying medical coverage to those servicewomen who become pregnant as a result of a rape during their service.

During the debate on my amendment, a story surfaced about a 22-year-old U.S. Army private who was raped at a military base in Afghanistan.

She became pregnant and wanted an abortion. Since a pregnancy from rape is not covered she had no choice but to come home for the procedure, interrupting her service and her career.

She faced "red-tape" delays in coming home plus the difficulty of raising the money for her procedure. Her sole source of financial support was her mother who was living on a fixed, low income.

Despite the existence of a vocal minority, there has long been bipartisan support for women who require care when their life is threatened or when they are victims of rape and incest.

If we don't provide compassionate support for women serving in uniform, who face an intimate, most personal decision, we are turning our backs on them in a time of great need.

Even for servicewomen who don't require this service, current policy sends a demoralizing message. It tells them that if they become pregnant due to a sexual assault, they are on their own.

If the federal government can provide this exception to assaulted women who are not in uniform, we can and should also ensure that the brave servicewomen who are victimized during their military service receive all the medical care that they need.