Congress delivers for women in the Peace Corps

“I never wanted children, but especially not in this situation.”

These are the words of Jean*, a returned Peace Corps volunteer who became pregnant as a result of being raped during her 1997-1999 service.

For Jean, who had already experienced the unthinkable, the realization that the health coverage she received as a Peace Corps Vvlunteer would not cover her abortion, compounded an already traumatic event.

{mosads}That’s no longer the case, thanks to a bill passed by the House and Senate last week. Though it was best known for preventing a government shutdown, the Appropriations bill also contained provisions that will ensure for the first time that Peace Corps volunteers have access to abortion in cases of rape, incest, or to protect the life of the woman.

For Jean, a law like this would have had great impact. “I knew that I would want to terminate the pregnancy. I was still in shock when the whole bureaucracy of the process was being explained to me,” she said. “I just didn’t want to be pregnant anymore. They told me how much it would be and that I would have to pay for it myself. I did not have that money.”

Jean faced an impossible decision, but her story is not unique.  For decades, women in the Peace Corps have been denied insurance coverage for abortion, even when a volunteer has been raped or faces a life-threatening pregnancy. That ban on coverage set them apart from other women who receive health care coverage through the federal government, including women in the armed services and women working for the Peace Corps program back in Washington, DC.

Fortunately, the voices of Jean and other returned volunteers who have experienced difficult circumstances are finally being heard and at long last Congress has finally acted to end this unfair policy. As a returned Peace Corps volunteer, I certainly thank Jean for her courage to speak out.

Stories like Jean’s underscore why this commonsense fix is so important. Lawmakers who championed this fix, including Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), deserve our immense thanks for their unwavering commitment to ensure health care equity for women that serve in the Peace Corps.

While this is an important step forward, there is still clear work to be done to expand comprehensive access to reproductive health services for Peace Corps volunteers that put their safety on the line through their invaluable service, including removing abortion restrictions altogether. No woman — no matter where she lives or works — should face barriers to care. Abortion is a safe medical procedure, and a decision that should be made between a woman and her doctor. We can’t wait to help all women around the world, including those who experience violence in crisis or conflict areas, access the health care they need.

Lifting the additional restrictions on abortion coverage was the right thing to do for the more than 60 percent of Peace Corps volunteers that are women. These volunteers put their safety on the line through their invaluable service, and deserve to know we have their backs while serving their country abroad. At long last can receive the fair treatment that they deserve.  

*Name has been changed.

 Frett is vice president–Global, Planned Parenthood Federation of America.


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