Bill to Expand Abortion Access for Military Women Introduced in Senate

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

abortion services for military womenSenator Kirsten Gillebrand (D-New York) has introduced a bill in the Senate that would allow military servicewomen to obtain abortions in military medical facilities, provided they pay for them out of pocket. Current law forbids federal dollars from directly funding abortions except to protect the life of the mother, or in cases of rape or incest. The law also currently prohibits military members and their families from using their own money to pay for abortions in military hospitals.

Representative Louise Slaughter (D-New York) introduced similar legislation last month in the House of Representatives.

The proposed bill, called the Military Access to Reproductive Care and Health Act (or the MARCH Act, as suckers for acronyms like to call it), is intended to allow military women to get abortions in American military facilities overseas rather than have to take leave and go back to the United States to get it or risk having an unsafe abortionist in an overseas country do it. Gillebrand and the law’s supporters are also concerned about overseas language barriers, the health and safety records of overseas abortion providers, questionable regulation, and a lack of privacy.

The Department of Defense estimates that as many as 19,000 servicemembers are sexually assaulted each year,” said Senator Gillebrand in a statement.  “While victims of rape or incest now can receive abortion services at military medical facilities, for some disclosing their assault would be especially problematic; for example, because their commanding officer is the perpetrator of the assault.  Other women may decide that they simply do not want to disclose that they were raped.  Either way, the MARCH Act of 2013 would provide a path for women in this difficult position to receive services without compromising their privacy.”

Senator Gillebrand is the chairperson of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel.

The Senate version of the bill has also picked up co-sponsorship from Senators Dick Durbin (Ill.), Al Franken (Minn.), Tom Harkin (Ia.), Frank Lautenberg (N.J.), Jeff Merkley (Ore.), Patty Murray (Wash.), Bernie Sanders (Vt.), Jean Shaheen (N.H.), Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.). All the Senate cosponsors are Democrats, except for Sanders, who an independent but who describes himself as a “democratic socialist.”

The House version of the bill has 45 co-sponsors, all of them Democrats. Passage in the house is impossible without some Republican support, since Republicans still hold the majority in the House of Representatives. 

“Our women in uniform continue to play increasingly critical roles in our military and there is no reason for them to be excluded from the same types of health care services available to those in the private sector,” said Senator Patty Murray.

“Women serving in foreign countries deserve access to safe and legal health care, which in many cases is not available off the military base.  Women in the U.S. military shouldn’t have to forfeit their rights when they serve abroad, and this legislation would bring unjust treatment to an end,” said Senator Frank R. Lautenberg. 

Supporters of the House version of the bill state that there is a ‘conscience clause’ that allows military health care providers who object to performing abortions to refuse to provide it.

In 1993, the Clinton Administration issued an executive order that lifted the ban on using private funds to pay for abortions in military hospitals. However, Congress reinstated the ban in 1995, prohibiting private funding for abortions at military facilities except in cases involving a threat to the life of the mother, rape or incest. Congress also restricted public funding for abortions to cases involving a threat to the mother’s life. A more extensive legislative and political history is available from the Guttmacher Institute here. The Guttmacher Institute consistently supports abortion rights.

Both Senator Slaughter and Gillebrand have attempted to push similar legislation in 2011 and 2012, but without success. 

 

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