Is Congress Going to Lift Its Ban on Abortion Funding for the Peace Corps’ Rape Victims?

The Senate is pushing to lift the ban, but the House has blocked the effort in recent years.

National Journal
Sophie Novack
June 23, 2014, 5:30 p.m.

Cur­rent law al­lows for an ex­cep­tion to the ban on fed­er­al fund­ing for abor­tions in the event of rape, in­cest, or life en­dan­ger­ment. Un­less you’re a Peace Corps vo­lun­teer.

Since 1979, in­sur­ance through the Peace Corps pro­gram has been pro­hib­ited from cov­er­ing abor­tions un­der any cir­cum­stance. Oth­er re­cip­i­ents of gov­ern­ment-sponsored in­sur­ance — in­clud­ing fed­er­al em­ploy­ees and Medi­caid re­cip­i­ents — do have ac­cess to cov­er­age in the above three cir­cum­stances. Con­gress also lif­ted a sim­il­ar ban for mem­bers of the mil­it­ary last year.

The pat­tern has been the same for the past sev­er­al years, with the Sen­ate amend­ing the ban on emer­gency abor­tion cov­er­age and the House up­hold­ing the pro­hib­i­tion. Without sup­port from both cham­bers, at­tempts to change the policy have re­peatedly fallen flat.

Those op­posed to the ban, however, have ex­pressed cau­tious op­tim­ism that at­ten­tion on the is­sue could in­crease the mo­mentum for change in the lower cham­ber.

The House Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee will hold a markup Tues­day of the FY 2015 State and For­eign Op­er­a­tions Ap­pro­pri­ations Bill, which in­cludes budget­ing for the Peace Corps. The le­gis­la­tion cur­rently main­tains the ban on emer­gency abor­tion fund­ing for vo­lun­teers.

The Sen­ate Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee voted last week to pass the FY 2015 State and For­eign Op­er­a­tions Ap­pro­pri­ations Bill, in­clud­ing lan­guage that lifts this re­stric­tion. The lan­guage passed last year in the same ap­pro­pri­ations bill as well. The le­gis­la­tion will go to the full Sen­ate for a vote.

Abor­tion-rights ad­voc­ates praised the com­mit­tee’s ac­tion, ur­ging the House to fol­low suit. The Peace Corps is 60 per­cent fe­male, and vo­lun­teers typ­ic­ally find them­selves in po­ten­tially ris­ki­er situ­ations than oth­er types of fed­er­al em­ploy­ees.

“We ap­plaud the mem­bers of the Sen­ate Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee for tak­ing this crit­ic­al step today and show­ing their re­spect and sup­port for the health and well-be­ing of Peace Corps vo­lun­teers,” said Nancy Northup, pres­id­ent and CEO of the Cen­ter for Re­pro­duct­ive Rights, in a state­ment. “Now is the mo­ment when Con­gress can fi­nally right this wrong. We strongly urge the House to fol­low the lead of their Sen­ate col­leagues and fi­nally provide wo­men in the Peace Corps with the equal health care cov­er­age they need and de­serve.”

There’s lim­ited reas­on to be­lieve this year will di­verge from pre­ced­ent, but it is the first time there is a stand-alone bill in the House to ad­dress the ban: the Peace Corps Equity Act of 2014, in­tro­duced in May by Demo­crat­ic Rep. Nita Lowey of New York. A cor­res­pond­ing bill was re­in­tro­duced by New Hamp­shire Demo­crat Jeanne Shaheen in the Sen­ate; ori­gin­ally the ef­fort was led by the late Sen. Frank Lauten­berg.

Pres­id­ent Obama has in­cluded cov­er­age for emer­gency abor­tion ser­vices for Peace Corps vo­lun­teers in his budget pro­pos­al for the past two years.

The House Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee de­clined to com­ment on wheth­er there’s any pos­sib­il­ity of an abor­tion-fund­ing pro­vi­sion passing the House.

“The Com­mit­tee does not spec­u­late on fu­ture le­gis­lat­ive ac­tions, or the fi­nal out­come of pro­vi­sions or fund­ing levels,” House Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or Jen­nifer Hing wrote in an email on Monday. “The bill will of course be sub­ject to amend­ment both in full com­mit­tee to­mor­row, and on the House floor.”

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