Far from home, Peace Corps volunteers deserve equal reproductive health care coverage

Unlike virtually all other women receiving federal health care coverage—from federal employees to immigration detainees to women serving in the military—Peace Corps volunteers are strictly prohibited from receiving any coverage for abortion, even if they’ve been sexually assaulted or their lives are at risk.

This discriminatory policy has had devastating consequences for far too many women who, despite committing two years abroad to help improve the lives of people in developing areas around the world, have been forsaken by the very country they serve.

More than 60 percent of Peace Corps volunteers are women and more than 1,000 of those women have reported being sexually assaulted over the last decade. Brave former Peace Corps volunteers have recently spoken out publicly to tell their own stories of the humiliation and pain they’ve endured, not just from the assault itself and the traumatic experience of potentially facing an unintended pregnancy, but also from later being betrayed by the U.S. government after being told that if they needed an abortion, they would have to pay for it with their own limited stipend.

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“I was outraged that this service was not available to women who had paid the ultimate sacrifice with their bodies and futures,” said Mary Kate Shannon, a former Peace Corps volunteer who was sexually assaulted twice while recently serving in Peru, recalling her experience of thinking she needed an abortion upon returning home to the United States.

“I was hurt; Peace Corps had said that I would have to pay for the abortion myself out of my readjustment allowance, but I had already been using that to seek stability and housing while recovering, job searching, and reconnecting with the world I left behind, and grieving all that had been done and taken from me.”

Although it turned out that Mary Kate wasn't pregnant, she was still outraged that the Peace Corps couldn't cover abortions for Peace Corps volunteers who had been raped.

Women who are faced with terrible circumstances like Mary Kate’s shouldn’t also have to contend with the often far-reaching consequences of being unable to pay out of pocket for essential health care. But that is the harsh reality for Peace Corps volunteers today.

This injustice has endured for too long. But just as members of Congress were able to come together and finally provide limited abortion coverage to women serving in the armed forces in the closing hours of the last session, the same can be done for women in the Peace Corps. And now is the time.

Following the lead of President Barack Obama—who included in his proposed FY2014 budget this long-overdue fix to allow Peace Corps volunteers to use their federal health insurance to pay for abortions in the narrow cases of life endangerment, rape, and incest—and the leadership of the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) in introducing a stand-alone bill guaranteeing equal coverage for women in the Peace Corps earlier this year, members of the Senate Appropriations Committee just passed an appropriations bill that finally promotes equal health care coverage for all federal civil servants.

We must build on this momentum and ensure that the fundamental human rights of women serving our country in the Peace Corps are protected.

These strong and brave women are serving their country far from home, sometimes in dangerous and war-torn areas, helping to expand education, combat hunger, and build infrastructure for those who need it most. At the very least they deserve the dignity and respect that comes with having the same coverage for reproductive health services as other women who receive federal health insurance.

Gonen is the director of government relations at the Center for Reproductive Rights in Washington, D.C..