06/04/2012 12:03 pm ET Updated Aug 04, 2012

Women in the Military Deserve the Same Health Care Coverage as the Civilians They Protect

Civilian women who work for the federal government can receive abortion coverage in cases of rape.

Women in federal prisons can receive government-paid abortions if raped in prison.

So can women who are raped and who obtain health care through other federal health programs, whether Medicaid, Medicare or Indian Health Services.

However, the more than 400,000 women who bravely and selflessly serve our country in the various military services are denied coverage for abortion care except when the pregnancy endangers their life.

This lack of coverage for abortion also affects military wives and daughters who are victims of sexual assault and become pregnant.

Gale S. Pollock, a retired Army major general who served in the Army for 36 years, culminating her career as the acting surgeon general and commander of the Army Medical Department and the 22nd chief of the Army Nurse Corps, has spoken out about this shameful inequality in a Stars and Stripes guest column where she says: "The issue here is fairness and ensuring that our servicewomen are cared for. Women in the military should have the same coverage as the civilians they protect. Period."

Referring to the lack of abortion coverage, the General observes:

On top of this injustice, servicewomen are also three times more likely to be sexually assaulted than civilian women, putting their risk for an unintentional pregnancy higher than average. We cannot allow servicewomen who are the victims of rape to seek unsafe alternatives because their health care plan does not cover abortion. Women who put their lives on the line for our freedom shouldn't be denied proper and safe reproductive health services.

During a January 2012 press conference, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta called sexual assault in the ranks "an affront to the basic American values we defend, and... a stain on the good honor of the great majority of our troops and their -- and our families."

He backed up his comments with statistics showing that the military received 3,191 reports of sexual assault in fiscal 2011 and adding that sexual assault is "a very underreported crime," for which officials estimate the true number to be closer to 19,000.

Hopefully, our elected officials will eventually pass legislation that at least ensures that military rape victims will have access to the same health care benefits available to the civilians they help protect.

A week ago, the Senate Armed Services Committee, during consideration of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2013, adopted an amendment, offered by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, (D-NH), that would to lift the shameful law that denies our female service members who are victims of rape or incest covered abortion care at military facilities.

The motion "to authorize the use of Department of Defense funds for abortion in case of rape and incest," passed on a roll call vote of 16-10.

Voting in favor were Senators Levin, Lieberman, Reed, Akaka, Webb, McCaskill, Udall, Hagan, Begich, Shaheen, Gillibrand, Blumenthal, McCain, Brown and Collins.

Opposed were Senators Nelson, Inhofe, Sessions, Chambliss, Wicker, Portman, Ayotte, Graham, Vitter and my home state senator Cornyn. All but one -- Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska -- are Republicans.

Commenting on the vote, The New York Times says, "Republicans -- even a small number of them -- joining with Democrats on Capitol Hill to protect women's reproductive rights is a rare and welcome sight. Last week, Senators John McCain of Arizona, Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Susan Collins of Maine voted to lift a cruel and insulting law that requires female service members who are victims of rape or incest to pay for abortion care they receive at military facilities."

The Times adds:

The fact that nine Republicans on the committee refused to support the measure is one more reminder of how extreme the party's abortion politics have become. Senator Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat, also voted no.

The provision, offered by Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire, is included in the National Defense Authorization Act. It is likely to survive when the full Senate votes. The bigger challenge will be gaining agreement with the Republican-led House, which is determined to deny all women access to abortion care. The House reauthorization lacks a comparable provision.

If the bills make it to a House-Senate conference committee, Senator McCain's leadership will be essential. As the ranking Republican on Armed Services, and a veteran who showed enormous personal courage, he can have a large say in the negotiations that decide whether rape victims in the military are finally treated with decency.

Finally, General Pollock:

This is not about politics; this is about the health care of our nation's bravest women. Our servicewomen promise to support and defend the Constitution and our country. It is only fair that we support and defend them so they can make their own health care decisions. She fights for us; it shouldn't be too much to ask members of Congress to stand up for her.