Analysis Law and Policy

Unfair Sacrifice: Female Peace Corps Volunteers Shouldn’t Have to Give Up Their Right to Health Care

Elisha Dunn-Georgiou

Women serving our country should never have to face the tragedy of a sexual assault, but if they do, they should be able to access comprehensive health care and support services.

Serving in the Peace Corps is an amazing experience. I wouldn’t trade the two years I spent in a small village in rural Morocco for any other time. I regularly tout the virtues of the Peace Corps to colleagues and friends and regularly recommend volunteering to every young professional I meet. The personal and professional growth that comes from being a volunteer is invaluable, as are the long-standing relationships and memories of fun and adventure that any returned Peace Corps volunteer (RPCV) can recount.

Unfortunately, for many of us, these good memories are clouded by an instance of sexual assault.

One day, on a walk from the market-town to the village where I was living, I was approached and attacked by a man. Luckily, I was able to fight off my attacker and escape, mentally and emotionally shaken, but physically unharmed. When I reported this incident to my Peace Corps program officer, I was given very nice words of concern and sympathy, but nothing more. I was never asked if I needed medical attention or if wanted to report the attack to local authorities. There seemed to be virtually no protocol in place to address what had happened.

Having heard and seen my country office’s response to female volunteers who had not been as lucky as me to escape their attacker, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised. Several female volunteers who served with me were either sexually attacked, raped, or repeatedly sexually harassed. For most, the response was the same: expressions of concern from our country program staff, but few options other than to go home or to continue with service.

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Sexual violence against women isn’t limited to developing countries; 1 in 3 U.S. women have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime. Overcoming sexual assault is always difficult, but it is made even more so if you do not have the right to make personal medical decisions and access comprehensive health care and support. Currently, U.S. women serving in the Peace Corps do not have these rights.

Since fiscal year 1979, annual appropriations acts have prohibited the Peace Corps from covering abortion services for its volunteers, even in cases of rape, incest, and life endangerment. Female volunteers are now one of the only groups of women receiving health-care services through the federal government who are denied coverage for these services.

The Peace Corps Equity Act of 2013, introduced Thursday by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), could help change all of that and bring fair and equitable medical care to thousands of female Peace Corps volunteers. Women serving our country should never have to face the tragedy of a sexual assault, but if they do, they should be able to access comprehensive health care and support services.

When I was given the honor of serving in the Peace Corps, I knew I would have to make sacrifices—no running water, no electricity, and no family or old friends anywhere nearby. But one thing I never thought I’d have to sacrifice was my access to comprehensive medical care. It’s been more than 15 years since my service, and since then, thousands of female volunteers have had to make that same sacrifice. Let’s not make future volunteers pay that price. Let’s give these women the same rights afforded everyone else who serves their country overseas.

News Law and Policy

Texas Could Be Next to Give Police Hate Crime Protections

Teddy Wilson

Police officers have shot and killed 165 people in Texas since the start of 2015. Of those, 35 were Black men, 12 of whom were unarmed. There were 2 officers killed by firearms in Texas in 2015.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) announced Monday that he would ask the state legislature to pass a law classifying acts of violence committed against law enforcement officers as hate crimes, mimicking a similar measure passed by Louisiana lawmaker.

Abbott said in a statement that the proposal is intended to send a message.

“At a time when law enforcement officers increasingly come under assault simply because of the job they hold, Texas must send a resolute message that the State will stand by the men and women who serve and protect our communities,” Abbott said.

Abbott will ask the GOP-held Texas legislature to pass the Police Protection Act during the upcoming 2017 legislative session, which convenes in January. The proposal would extend hate crime protections to law enforcement officers.

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Abbott’s proposal would increase criminal penalties for any crime against a law enforcement officer, regardless of whether or not the crime qualifies as a hate crime. The proposal would create a campaign to “educate young Texans on the value law enforcement officers bring to their communities.”

Abbott’s proposal comes in the wake of a shooting in Dallas that left five police officers dead, and six others injured. Micah Xavier Johnson targeted police officers during a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest, before he was killed by law enforcement.  

Police officers killed at least 1,146 people in the United States in 2015, according to the Guardian’s database The Counted. Police officers have shot and killed 165 people in Texas since the start of 2015. Of those, 35 were Black men, 12 of whom were unarmed, according to the Guardian’s database. There were two officers killed by gunfire in Texas in 2015, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF).

Police in Texas have shot and killed 53 people so far in 2016, per the Guardian‘s database.

The Dallas shooting increased the urgency of calls to increase the penalties for violence against law enforcement.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) introduced similar legislation in Congress, designed to make killing a police officer a federal crime. Cornyn said in a statement that police officers protect communities and deserve “unparalleled support.”

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) in May signed into law the so-called Blue Lives Matter bill, which amended the state’s hate crime law to include acts of violence against any “law enforcement officer, firefighter, or emergency medical services personnel.”

Proponents of laws creating more penalties for crimes against law enforcement claim these measures are needed because of a growing threat of targeted violence against law enforcement. Data shows that violence against law enforcement has declined to historically low levels, while killings of civilians by police officers have risen dramatically.

Violent attacks on law enforcement officers are lower under President Obama than they have been under the previous four presidential administrations, according to the Washington Post’s analysis of data from the Officers Down Memorial Page.

During the Reagan presidency, there was an average of 101 law enforcement officers intentionally killed per year; during the George H.W. Bush administration, there was an average of 90 police killed per year; during the Clinton years, there was an average of 81 police killings annually; and during George W. Bush’s presidency, there was an average of 72 police killings via stabbings, gunfire, bombings, and vehicular assault per year.

There have been an average of 62 law enforcement officers killed annually during Obama’s seven and a half years in the White House.

The number of Texans who died during the course of an arrest almost doubled from 2005 to 2015, according to an analysis of state data by the Dallas Morning News. The increase in deaths coincided with a 20 percent reduction in the number of arrests statewide.

Matt Simpson, a policy strategist at the ACLU of Texas, told the Dallas Morning News that the number of deaths during arrests in Texas add to the evidence of systemic racism within the justice system.

“We have pretty strong evidence in a variety of ways that the criminal justice system is disproportionate,” Simpson said. “These numbers are unfortunately stark reminders.”

Commentary Law and Policy

Conservatives Are Using Abortion Panic to Attack Health Care Again—This Time About AmeriCorps

Jessica Mason Pieklo

Sounds bad for AmeriCorps if its volunteers have violated federal law by working as abortion clinic escorts, doesn't it? It also sounds precisely like an anti-choice talking point.

On Tuesday, the Hill published a story claiming a federal investigation uncovered AmeriCorps volunteers allegedly violating federal law by assisting patients seeking abortions. But as is typical of abortion-related reporting in the press, the Hill‘s piece left more questions than answers and more assumptions than fact, even as conservatives moved to leverage the alleged incident into an attack on public health care.

As reported by Rewire’s Christine Grimaldi, the inspector general’s office for the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), the federal agency that oversees AmeriCorps, investigated allegations that AmeriCorps volunteers worked with a grantee organization to provide emotional support, or doula care, to abortion patients.

According to the findings released by the CNCS, which form the basis of the the Hill reporting, such abortion doula work violated the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, the 2009 law reauthorizing the AmeriCorps program. That Act prohibits staff and members from “providing abortion services or referrals for receipt of such services.”

The Hill went on to state that the employees were acting as “clinic escorts, otherwise known as abortion doulas” and detailed the concessions AmeriCorps agreed to with CNCS investigators once this “illegal” activity was uncovered.

Sounds bad for AmeriCorps if its volunteers have violated federal law by working as abortion clinic escorts, doesn’t it?

It also sounds precisely like an anti-choice talking point, which is what should have given the Hill pause to at least ask a couple of follow-up questions.

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Again, AmeriCorps volunteers are restricted under the Serve America Act from providing abortion services or referrals for receipt of such services. However, the Act continues, they “may exercise their rights as private citizens and may participate in the activities listed above [such as the abortion restrictions] on their initiative, on non-AmeriCorps time, and using non- CNCS funds. Individuals should not wear the AmeriCorps logo while doing so.”

So that means AmeriCorps volunteers are free to work as abortion doulas on their own time and not wearing AmeriCorps gear to do so. They can also do so working as abortion clinic escorts—which are not the same thing as doulas—who help patients navigate a gauntlet of anti-choice protesters outside abortion clinics on their way into their procedures.

The government’s own findings provide zero information as to whether these volunteer activities happened on personal time or not. The first question to ask then is: When did these activities happen? Assuming the AmeriCorps volunteers didn’t do this work on AmeriCorps time, then there is not an issue of illegality.

It also matters what exactly these AmeriCorps volunteers were doing when they were allegedly offering abortion support services. The language used in AmeriCorps guidance forbidding volunteers from directly or indirectly “provid[ing] abortion services or referrals” is pretty vague. Not surprisingly, it is also language that anti-choice lawmakers have peppered in statutes throughout the states—and that the courts have had a chance to look at and offer guidance on.

In the 1989 case Webster v. Reproductive Health Servicesthe U.S. Supreme Court examined a series of Missouri laws restricting abortion rights, which included forbidding public employees from performing or “assisting abortions” unnecessary to save the mother’s life. The lower courts, including the conservative U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, struck down the provisions as unconstitutional. Specifically, on the question of just what constitutes “assisting” an abortion, the federal appeals court wrote:

We cannot accept the conclusion that “assisting” an abortion encompasses driving or escorting the patient to the location where the procedure is to take place. The abortion itself does not take place in the vehicle or as the patient is being escorted. We think a more reasonable interpretation of the phrase “assisting an abortion” is the one suggested by the state: direct participation in the surgical procedure itself.

When the Supreme Court took up the Webster case, it did not address the “assisting” question because the State of Missouri failed to specifically appeal that portion of the Eighth Circuit’s ruling, meaning that interpretation stands. As far as the courts are concerned, “assisting an abortion” means direct participation in the surgical procedure itself.

In constitutional terms, if a law—like the one at issue in Webster—is vague, it violates both equal protection and due process, because how can you comply with a law if you don’t know what it means? No court has ruled on whether the abortion-related prohibitions applied to AmeriCorps volunteers are equally vague, but given that the language of the restrictions nearly mirrors the language of the one in Webster, and further given the carve-outs allowed for volunteers to do abortion work on their own time, it would take an extreme act of judicial activism to rule otherwise.

Now, not all journalists are lawyers and not all journalists cover reproductive rights on the daily. So maybe not asking about some of these details is a function of a lack of experience and consistency in the subject area.

But an outlet like the Hill covers, as its focus, politics. So any of its reporters should be asking, at the very least, “What is the political play in this story?”

Not surprisingly, the political play by conservatives appears in part to be to use this apparently unsubstantiated two-page report to launch a series of investigations into the federal funding of all community health centers. The funding of such centers is one of the cornerstones of the Affordable Care Act in expanding health-care access to traditionally underserved populations. Almost immediately following the Hill story, Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), who chairs an influential House Appropriations Committee panel in charge of health spending, called on the Obama administration to launch a nationwide investigation on community health centers’ compliance with federal law.

“Since the prohibitions relating to abortion in the Serve America Act are similar to prohibitions carried annually in appropriations acts, I have concerns that health centers may not be complying with restrictions in the Labor-HHS spending bills,” he said in a separate letter to the inspector general’s office for the Department of Health and Human Services.

There it is, folks. The Trojan Horse of abortion panic being rolled out once again to attack public health care, specifically public health care for the most vulnerable populations, like those served in community health centers—regardless if that health center offers reproductive health care or not. This is the same conservative logic of the Hyde and Helms Amendments, which have proven disastrous for access to reproductive health care while simultaneously being treated as “law of the land” by the media and politicians alike, despite the fact both Hyde and Helms could be repealed anytime Congress chose. Hyde and Helms, which restrict the use of public funds for abortions domestically and internationally with very rare exception, are built on the abortion panic of poor women fleecing innocent taxpayers to subsidize “irresponsible” sex. Conservatives were similarly successful with the strategy of using abortion panic when first debating the Affordable Care Act (ACA) too: This led to the Stupak-Pitts Amendment, which replicates Hyde’s abortion funding ban in ACA insurance exchanges. And we saw it yet again with conservatives equating contraception with abortion in their wave of litigation challenging the birth control benefit in the ACA

And rarely did mainstream media blink or challenge conservatives on these tactics. And in each instance, the administration caved.

“We moved immediately to cease the activity in question, and suspended the identified site’s AmeriCorps members for a period until they and their site supervisors were retrained and revised member service contracts were reviewed and signed,” NACHC Chief Operating Officer Dave Taylor said in a statement following the report.

Despite at least a handful of explanations of how these actions by AmeriCorps volunteers could be lawfully explained, the administration blinked. And in doing so, it enabled the press to continue with its same complacent reporting on reproductive rights, despite the fact these are not just stories, but real lives on the line.