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."
This article appears in the June 24, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.
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