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Unequal Sacrifice: U.S. Servicewomen Denied Equal Health Coverage

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May 24, 2011

Michael E. Pheneger, Colonel, U.S. Army (Ret.), is the President of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. He frequently serves as a spokesperson on civil liberties issues — particularly those involving the nexus between civil liberties and national security. He has spoken widely on the USA Patriot Act, torture, Guantanamo, and warrantless wiretapping, among other issues. Col. Pheneger spent 30 years on active duty as a US Army Intelligence Officer, retiring in 1993.

As Memorial Day approaches, it is a perfect time to reflect on what we owe the members of our Armed Forces and things we can do to improve their lot.

As a retired Army colonel with 30 years on active duty, I keep a close eye on issues that relate to military readiness and support for our men and women in uniform. It is for that reason that the Davis-Andrews-DeGette-Maloney-Sanchez-Slaughter Amendment, which would reinstate coverage for abortion for military women who have been victimized by rape, is of particular interest.

This is not a radical amendment; it ensures that we take care of military women who have been impregnated through rape by providing them with the same medical support already available to many civilians. Federal law currently provides this health benefit for other women who become pregnant as a result of rape and rely on government health coverage. This includes women enrolled in Medicaid, disabled women enrolled in Medicare, federal employees (other than members of the Armed Services), women who receive health care through the Indian Health Service and women in federal prisons.

Yet, inexplicably, this exception does not exist for servicewomen who serve and make extraordinary personal sacrifices for our country. I have known servicewomen who became pregnant as a result of sexual assault while serving overseas. Their pain and fear are real. Forcing them to return to the United States and personally pay for essential medical services is cruel.

As strongly as we may feel about our personal beliefs about abortion, the reality is that servicewomen face unacceptably high risks of sexual assault. In fact, a servicewoman is more likely to be raped than her civilian counterpart. It is unacceptable that our government would deny to servicewomen the same health benefit that civilian women receive. Our women in uniform deserve the best their country can provide.

This decision also impacts the readiness capabilities of the units in which these women serve. If women must return to the United States from Iraq, Afghanistan and other remote deployments to terminate a pregnancy caused by rape, it has a negative impact on their units’ readiness and performance. Failure to treat women in uniform fairly and equitably has a negative impact on both enlistment and reenlistment. Short changing these women endangers them and the men and women they serve with.

It’s time to rise above the politics that unfortunately shadow issues of reproductive health, and support our women in uniform. Their service and sacrifice should not be repaid with discrimination and denial of support legally available to other women.

The leadership of the House of Representatives should allow the Davis amendment to come to the floor for debate and members of the House should vote overwhelmingly to repeal the current policy. Our women in uniform deserve nothing less.