In a historic bipartisan vote on Tuesday, the Senate passed Sen. Jeanne Shaheen’s (D-N.H.) amendment to the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act that would extend abortion insurance coverage to victims of rape in the military. If the House of Representatives decides to include the measure in its version of the defense bill, military servicewomen who have become pregnant from rape will no longer have to pay out of pocket for an abortion procedure for the first time since 1981.
Army veteran Ayana Harrell, 34, has been closely watching the progress of the amendment. Harrell says she was drugged and gang-raped in February 2001 by a group of soldiers and Marines at the Redstone Arsenal base in Huntsville, Ala. It took her three months to drum up the courage to report the rape, she says, because she had been trained to believe that soldiers are not allowed to feel or behave like victims. By the time Harrell told her senior drill sergeant what had happened, she had discovered that she was pregnant from the assault.
“The only thing he said to me was, ‘This is your thing. I don’t want to hear it. You need to deal with it however you’re gonna deal with it. Go off post and get an abortion,'” Harrell told The Huffington Post in an interview.
Harrell says she made an appointment at a local Alabama abortion clinic, but ended up backing out of the procedure in part because she couldn’t afford the “$200-something” fee. If she had been a civilian employee of the federal government, a recipient of Medicare or Medicaid, or even incarcerated in a federal prison, her insurance plan would have paid for her abortion. But military servicewomen receive health care and insurance through the Department of Defense’s Military Health System, which is prohibited by law from covering abortions except when a woman’s life is in danger.
“It shouldn’t be that a woman joins the military and she loses her rights to make choices about her body,” she said, “or that she has to make the choice to foot the bill out of her pocket for something that wasn’t her choice in the first place.”
Sen. Shaheen told The Huffington Post that the issue of fairness for military women — not the abortion rights issue — is the reason for her amendment, and the argument she is making to her Republican colleagues in the House. Regardless of whether certain members have an ideological opposition to abortion, she says, military women should be given the same level of health care coverage as civilians after they have been sexually assaulted.
“It’s simply unfair that we’ve singled out the women who are putting their lives on the line in the military,” she said. “We have young women who are starting out making $18,000 a year, and they just are not able to deal with this situation on the private side when it happens to them.”
Because the House version of the NDAA does not have a similar amendment attached, a bipartisan conference committee will be charged with deciding whether to include the measure in the final version of the bill. Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and ranking member Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) both support Shaheen’s amendment, and Shaheen said that House Armed Services Committee ranking member Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) has indicated that he would support it as well. House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Ky.) has not indicated whether he would support the measure’s inclusion, but three out of four ranking conferees would make for strong odds.