A little-known amendment to the Defense Appropriations Bill could lead to crucial changes in access to health care for women serving our country overseas. In brief, the Burris Amendment (covered previously on RHRealityCheck) would allow women in the military to spend their own money to access the same medical services they have the right to access in the United States when serving offshore. The entire cost of the abortion would be borne by the woman herself, and no military physician would be forced to perform abortions.
The Burris Amendment was approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee in May, and faces the same hurdles as several other amendments that have been tacked onto the appropriations bill, including a repeal of the so-called “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.
Although the Burris Amendment is the most recent attempt to improve access to safe abortion for women serving in the military, this is hardly a new fight for the prochoice movement. As with other reproductive health issues, women’s access to safe abortion has varied depending on who is in office. In the 1970s, abortion on military bases was allowed and was federally funded. Starting in the late 1970s restrictions began. The Hyde Amendment prohibited federally funded abortions, and women were no longer allowed even to use their own funds until Bill Clinton took office. Women were granted a brief reprieve in 1993, but in 1996 Congress enacted a statutory ban on privately funded abortions in military facilities. Representative Susan Davis of California unsuccessfully attempted an override in 2005 and 2006.
Meanwhile, for the past 14 years the very women bravely defending all of our rights paradoxically are not able to exercise them for themselves. This has devastating consequences. A 26-year-old marine detailed her experience of attempting to provoke an abortion on her own while serving in Iraq on the online magazine, Religion Dispatches:
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You hear these legends of coat-hanger abortions…but there are no coat hangers in Iraq. I looked.
In 2002, retired Lieutenant General Claudia Kennedy bravely published a letter in support of access to privately funded abortions at US military bases. She had seen her colleagues undergo traumatic experiences merely to access the same care all American women have the right to receive. She recounts the experience of a young woman serving in Germany who had to venture off base to obtain a safe abortion:
The experience had been both mortifying and painful….no pain killer of any sort was administered for the procedure; the modesty of this soldier and the other women at the clinic had been violated (due to different cultural expectations about nudity); and neither she nor the soldier understood German, and the instructions were given in almost unintelligible English.
Unfortunately, women serving in the military must rely on retired soldiers and non-military doctors and nurses to tell their stories to their representatives, as active military cannot speak sirectly with Congress.
Among military women, 2/3 of pregnancies are unintended. Those who choose abortion must inform their commanding officer in order to get time off, return to the United States (or another country with access to safe abortion) at their own expense, and pay for the abortion themselves. Young women in the military are often making between $20,000 and $25,000. What should be a private matter between a woman and her doctor becomes a public, expensive, emotionally and physically taxing event. Women who should be able to have a procedure soon after deciding on abortion and return to work the next day instead may find themselves facing an ordeal that can last weeks or even months.
I was on Capitol Hill this past week lobbying in favor of this amendment with Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health. When we told legislative aides stories about the terrible toll this ban on privately funded abortions on military bases takes on our servicewomen, they clearly began to understand what is at stake.
If you have any personal stories about the impact of this ban on you, friends, family, or patients, please contact your Senators and Representatives to speak for women who can’t speak for themselves.
This is not about abortion. This is about taking care of the women who are protecting us. They deserve the best care possible, regardless of where they are stationed.