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Reproductive Injustice: The Time for the Peace Corps Equity Act is Now

by: Genevieve Cato

Fri May 09, 2014 at 09:00 AM CDT

Sixty percent of Peace Corps volunteers are women. These volunteers serve the United States government and our security through service to others. They are the best and most positive face of our society for the people they interact with while on their assignments in communities around the world, and they are a key part of maintaining our positive image with these communities.

Peace Corps volunteers give up years of their lives to better the international community as American representatives, yet in a key area of healthcare, women who serve in the Peace Corps can have fewer rights than the women who live in the communities they are sent to aid.

More on this horrifying inequality and the importance of the Peace Corps Equity Act below the jump.

Just over one year ago, women in the military were granted access to abortion services in the case of rape or incest (it was already covered in situations of life endangerment were the pregnancy carried to term). For women in the Peace Corps, it is a different story.

In the words of Latanya Mapp Frett, former Peace Corps volunteer and current Global Vice President for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America,

We were assured that in the case of an emergency, our government had our backs. I was told I'd be evacuated in the face of political violence. My health insurance would cover my hospital bills should I be hit by a bus or fall in a ditch or otherwise suffer any accidents on the job.

But if I needed an abortion, I was on my own. Even if I had been raped. Even if the pregnancy threatened my life.

This coverage ban for Peace Corps volunteers has been in place since 1979. It is in complete opposition to the stance taken in regards to other women who serve our country in the military, women on Medicaid, and government employees, and it places Peace Corps volunteers in a dangerously vulnerable situation when they are faced with decisions about their reproductive futures.

Peace Corps volunteers make an average of $250-$300 a month, according to MSNBC. The average cost of abortion services is just under $500. For women in the Peace Corps, having an abortion - even in the case of rape - will cost them a month's salary. For most volunteers, the vast majority of this meager income goes to pay for housing and other basic needs. It is almost impossible for the average Peace Corps volunteer to afford abortion services on her own.

Senator Frank Lautenberg introduced the Peace Corps Equity Act in 2013. The law would end this ban on abortion services for Peace Corps volunteers in instances of rape, incest, or endangerment of a women's life if the pregnancy were carried to term. On Monday, a report entitled "No Exceptions: Documenting the Abortion Experiences of U.S. Volunteers" was released, and it told a harrowing story. In interviews with 430 Peace Corps volunteers, a narrative of lack of access to reproductive justice for these Americans emerges.

One volunteer who served in the eighties recalled the response of Peace Corps employees when she inquired about abortion services: "We're sorry to tell you, but Reagan is the president right now and we can't touch this with a ten foot pole." The most they could do was give her a phone book, and her parents ended up paying for her abortion procedure.

Another volunteer who survived sexual assault while serving in the Peace Corps was only able to access abortion services when parents of a friend helped her pay for it.  "Why are we penalizing one group of women for choosing [to serve] our government through Peace Corps?" She asked. "Why are we penalizing them by failing to give them adequate services in the event they [are] raped?"

The Peace Corps Equity Act was reintroduced in the both chambers of Congress on Monday, the same day that the report was released. It has twenty-seven sponsors in the Senate and four in the House, and boasts bipartisan support in both chambers.

Legislation like this should not be a partisan issue. Women serving our country should not have to live in fear of sexual assault, and they certainly should not be forced to acts of desperation due to a lack of abortion access based on a decades-old abortion ban. It is a reproductive injustice to treat women in the Peace Corps differently than other employees of the government or those who also rely on the government for health care.

No woman who volunteers to spend two years of her life representing the United States in a foreign country ought to be left alone to find solutions for her reproductive healthcare needs - especially if she is the victim of sexual assault or incest, or if her life is endangered by her pregnancy. The time for the Peace Corps Equity Act is now, and we must urge Congress to act.  

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