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Military Women Deserve First Class Treatment Not Second-Class Status

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May 26, 2011

Dr. Katherine Scheirman served as an officer in the United States Air Force as a physician for 20 years. As Chief, Medical Operations Division for the Headquarters, United States Air Forces in Europe (HQ USAFE) her assignments included oversight of the quality of care provided at Air Force hospitals and clinics in the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, and Turkey. Dr. Scheirman retired as a colonel in 2006.

I was deeply disappointed to learn that on May 24, the leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives shut down debate on an amendment that would have provided abortion services to military women who become pregnant as a result of rape.

Under current law, the Department of Defense is barred from providing coverage for abortion except where the pregnant woman’s life is endangered. Unlike other federal bans on abortion coverage, the military ban provides no exception for cases of rape or incest. The current policy is shameful. Our military women, who serve and sacrifice for their country, should not have worse health care benefits than civilians who rely on the government for their insurance coverage.

As Chief of Medical Operations at the Air Force’s European Headquarters, I was significantly involved in the initial development of the Sexual Assault Response and Prevention program (SAPRO) for our bases throughout Europe. Improvements in the area of prevention and reporting of assaults, and in the provision of emergency contraception, are commendable. However, military sexual assaults remain unacceptably high.

While the Department of Defense maintains a zero tolerance policy on sexual assault, this crime has reached crisis level in the military. It is estimated that one in three women are sexually assaulted during their military service. This figure is especially staggering when taken into account with under-reporting of sexual assault. The climate of fear and intimidation leading to under-reporting remains an intractable problem, with the FY2010 SAPRO report estimating that only 14 percent of victims of sexual assault report this crime.

This report also shows that the vast majority of victims are female, 25 or younger, and from the junior enlisted ranks. These young women usually serve far from home, with no close family and friend support systems to help them through such a traumatic experience. When a servicewoman is raped, becomes pregnant, and chooses to end the pregnancy caused by an act of violence, she should not have to scramble to find the funds to pay for the care she needs. She should have access to the same medical benefits that other women insured by our government already have.

I stand with Service Women’s Action Network, the ACLU, and many other organizations working to protect the women who have dedicated their lives to protecting us, by supporting the Davis-Andrews-DeGette-Maloney-Sanchez-Slaughter Amendment. If passed it would have repealed the current ban on coverage for abortion care for pregnancies that are the result of rape or incest.

Our military women, and the wives and daughters of active duty troops, deserve more comprehensive reproductive health care than the current policy provides. They have demonstrated their commitment to the country they are willing to die to protect. Congress should demonstrate its commitment to their service and sacrifice.

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