The national response to recent comments by Rep. Todd Akin have shown that, even with an issue that can be as divisive as abortion, an overwhelming majority of Americans have the abounding grace and empathy to allow a woman facing a pregnancy conceived in rape to make her own personal decision for herself and her family.
But while the initial shock of those statements fades, the American public should turn its attention to the fact that the same dismissive attitude toward rape victims is the source of a cruel law that unfairly targets our women in uniform.
Women in the military, as well as the wives and daughters of service members, have their health insurance covered by the federal government. As hard as it may be to believe, unlike their civilian counterparts, a female service member or military dependent who becomes pregnant as a result of rape cannot use her insurance to cover an abortion if she chooses to terminate a pregnancy. She is instead left to her own devices to locate supporting services and forced to pay out of pocket for the care she needs. As a veteran who served in the military for more than 38 years, I find this inexcusable.
Thankfully, this ban does not apply to other federal employees. So if you are a civilian working for the Defense Department, or, like one of my daughters, working for the International Trade Commission, you can rely on your health insurance should the unthinkable happen. But if you serve in Iraq as my younger daughter did, and you survive a rape with a subsequent pregnancy, you do not have that option.
This disparity is indefensible. The more than 214,000 actively serving women who defend our country in the armed forces have earned and deserve at least the same care and coverage as civilian federally employed women.
As a military leader, I know firsthand the importance of taking care of all of our troops. The idea that our country would abandon our military women in an hour of need is unfathomable. We take care of soldiers. That is what we do. But when it comes to a pregnancy due to one of the most egregious of sexual crimes, federal law ties the military medical system’s hands.
Our servicewomen place themselves in harm’s way to defend our freedom. They do so in an environment where, unfortunately, the possibility of being sexually assaulted is greater than in the general public. But while the Department of Defense and Congress work earnestly to address this very serious issue, those who have suffered the ordeal of rape with an ensuing pregnancy shouldn’t be left on their own to manage their care.
Currently, there is an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would repeal this injustice. Introduced by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and passed by the Senate Armed Services Committee in May, the amendment would give servicewomen and military dependents the same coverage as other federal workers.
It is critical that this unfair ban be repealed. As a country, we cannot loudly denounce the absurd suggestion that no woman can become pregnant if she’s raped “legitimately,” but still uphold a policy that denies our troops equal coverage for critical care if they become pregnant as a result of rape.
A woman in uniform deserves the same peace of mind as any other survivor of sexual assault, to make the best decision for herself and her family, and to know that the country she serves has her back.
This should not be a political issue. This is a matter of basic fairness and dignity for women in our armed forces. Congress must approve this amendment and stand up for servicewomen.Donna Barbisch, a retired major general, served in the Army for more than 38 years until her retirement in 2005. She is the president of Global Deterrence Alternatives, a consulting business focused on deterring terrorism and building capacity to manage disasters. She wrote this for the American Civil Liberties Union.