By Kate Frawley, Reproductive Freedom Fellow
Today, Medicaid recipients, residents of the District of Columbia, and women in federal prisons receive abortion coverage when a pregnancy becomes life-threatening or is the result of rape or incest. In December 2012, the Shaheen Amendment extended coverage to military personnel and their dependents. However, US federal appropriation bills have blocked abortion coverage for Peace Corps volunteers since 1979, and there are currently no exceptions to the mandate. Since 1961, the US Peace Corps has placed over 215,000 Americans as volunteers in 139 developing countries.
More than half of the Peace Corps volunteers are women, 90 percent are single, and the average age is 28. Although a volunteer’s monthly stipend is currently in the range of $250 to $300 per month, they receive health care free of charge during their two years of service. And yet the Peace Corps does not cover the cost of abortion procedures, not even in cases of rape, sexual assault, or incest.
So why not Peace Corps volunteers?
In a 2014 study conducted by the University of Ottawa, a group of 362 women returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) were interviewed regarding their service, and experiences with abortion, sexual assault, or rape while stationed in one of the reported 83 countries. A staggering 140 participants (32.3 percent) reported on the rape or sexual assault of a member of their cohort, while 32 participants (8.8 percent) reported a personal experience of rape or sexual assault while serving.
Even in instances of rape and sexual assault, a Peace Corps volunteer receives no abortion coverage upon returning to Washington, DC after medical evacuation. When a woman in the Peace Corps requests an abortion, she is flown to Washington, DC where she is forced to pay for the procedure out of pocket. Even worse, roughly 70 percent of the study participants were not aware of the “no exceptions” policy while serving. This means that when many volunteers returned to the US, they were informed for the first time that they would have to pay for the procedure out of pocket while they were already pregnant. With a limited stipend, many volunteers would not be able to pay for an abortion. Since the “no exceptions” policy is still in effect, many Peace Corps volunteers seek abortions in the country which they are stationed. In some cases, this means seeking an abortion that is illegal or deemed “decidedly unsafe” by physicians.
The study reported overarching themes of isolation, lack of confidentiality, lack of social support, and stress regarding the cost of the abortion. Many RPCVs have described the policy as “unfair and unjust,” but also as a reflection on the culture of victim-blaming in instances of rape and sexual assault. 97 percent of the study’s participants disagreed with the Peace Corp’s policy on abortion coverage. However, RPCVs almost unanimously supported the notion of a change to expand abortion coverage in cases of life endangerment, rape, or incest. Pro-choice lawmakers are currently trying to make changes to the US Peace Corps abortion coverage policy through the Peace Corps Equity Act.
You can fight for reproductive rights within the Peace Corps, too.
This petition from NARAL Pro-Choice America demands that the “no exceptions” policy be lifted, seeks to better inform volunteers about the current policy, finds ways that active volunteers can have access to abortion care, and ensures that Peace Corps volunteers have access to the full range of contraceptive methods. You can help promote fairness for Peace Corps volunteers by contacting your members of Congress demanding that they support the Peace Corps Equity Act.
Kate Frawley is a Reproductive Freedom Fellow at NARAL Pro-Choice Washington.