When John F. Kennedy signed the executive order creating the Peace Corps over fifty years ago, he said, "Life in the Peace Corps will not be easy. There will be no salary, and allowances will be at a level sufficient only to maintain health and meet basic needs." It's true that life in the Peace Corps isn't easy, but unfortunately, our government is failing to live up to the rest of this promise when it comes to providing for the reproductive health needs of Peace Corps volunteers, who selflessly give their time and energy to help communities in developing countries.
Although volunteers receive health care coverage, Congress prohibits the Peace Corps from providing coverage of abortion services with no exceptions. Unlike other women who rely on the federal government for their health insurance—including stateside Peace Corps employees—female volunteers don't even receive abortion coverage for cases of rape, incest, and life endangerment, despite the fact that these women serve in far-flung communities where safe and reliable medical care is often hard to come by.
It's high time that our government ensure that these women, who make great sacrifices to better the lives of others, have the coverage they need, especially in such difficult circumstances.
Earlier this month, President Obama laid the groundwork by including these exceptions in his proposed budget for FY 2014. Now, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) has introduced legislation to make it real: the Peace Corps Equity Act.
For the past two years, Sen. Lautenberg has been a strong champion for abortion coverage for Peace Corps volunteers in cases of life endangerment, rape, and incest. The Senate Appropriations Committee twice passed appropriations bills that included these important exceptions, but so far it has had no luck getting further.
Sen. Lautenberg is trying to change that. As he put it, "Women who serve in the Peace Corps face inherent risks to their safety, including sexual assault, yet their own country restricts their access to care. My legislation will ensure that Peace Corps volunteers don't have to forfeit their rights or jeopardize their health when they volunteer to help underserved populations throughout the world."
Every woman should have the reproductive health care coverage she needs, and all the bans on insurance coverage for abortion should be repealed. But at the very least, Peace Corps volunteers deserve the same exceptions for dire circumstances as other women in federal service.
Just last year, Congress passed a defense authorization bill that included a provision expanding abortion coverage to U.S. servicewomen and military dependents who become pregnant as a result of rape or incest. The provision even had bipartisan support.
Congress should again act to ensure that we treat women fairly by passing the Peace Corps Equity Act as soon as possible. Peace Corps volunteers already sacrifice so much – it's time we stop asking them to sacrifice basic health care coverage as well.