Abortion access in the US military – time for the MARCH Act

A Congressional bill has been proposed that will finally repeal the severe restrictions on American servicewomen’s access to abortion.  But how will this sit with the religious right currently gearing up for the 2012 Presidential elections?

Heather McRobie
15 July 2012

A bill that would enable access to abortion of US military personnel is currently in the Congressional committee stage of the US law-making process, and, if it passes through Congress, will finally repeal legislation that severely restricts American servicewomen’s access to abortion.  Currently, the US provides health care and insurance for members of the armed forces via the Military Health System of the Department of Defense, yet insurance coverage is only available for abortion care for servicewomen if their life is in medical danger as a result of the pregnancy.  As the ACLU states, the MARCH Act (the Military Access to Reproductive Care and Health for Military Women Act) would bring the military’s health insurance policy in line with the programmes of civilian women who get their health insurance via the federal government, while within the MARCH Act, the Shaheen amendment is intended specifically to extend federal funding to military women for abortion in the cases of rape.

Various attempts to amend the law have failed in 2000, 2004 and 2011. This time, campaigners are hoping that the support of the Department of Defense will increase the likelihood of the bill becoming law.  ACLU and women’s groups are mobilising in the hope that this time the law will pass, although the ramping-up of right wing ‘family values’ rhetoric in the run up to the 2012 elections will present a further obstacle to passing the legislation.

There are currently an estimated 400,000 women serving in the US military, yet – for all the perennial rhetoric that America’s service men and women are the country’s pride – women serving in the military do not have the same reproductive health rights as their civilian counterparts.  Under the current legislation servicewomen’s health insurance does not cover abortion – a ban exacerbated in conflict zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan, where abortion is often not available in civilian hospitals in the place of deployment.

Moreover, under the current law, women are even banned from using their own funds to cover an abortion in military facilities when serving overseas.  This leads to women being almost quite literally trapped when working abroad, as the military health insurance does not cover abortion, but women on the bases can’t use their own money to cover the abortion either.  This is what Jessica Kenyon describes as happening to her after she became pregnant as a result of being raped when serving in Korea.  After being sexually assaulted, Kenyon writes she then “faced the fact that military health insurance doesn’t allow abortion coverage in cases of rape, and I was unable to have a safe abortion off-base, so I was stuck.”  Kenyon flew home to the US after being discharged due to the trauma of the rape and ended up miscarrying. 

That women serving their country in often gruelling situations should not be granted autonomy over their own bodies in matters of reproductive health already seems like a strikingly ungrateful way to treat female military personnel serving their country.  But the legislation grants few mercies: the standing law on abortion provision in the military is the only case in America, other than the Peace Corps, where an existing abortion ban makes no insurance provisions or exceptions for survivors of rape and incest—even ‘pro-life’ state laws and bans on abortion coverage in US prisons contain exceptions for pregnancies as a result of rape.  As Human Rights Watch have stated in their call to end the abortion ban on military women,  “[t]he Senate has an opportunity to end this double injustice by revoking the health insurance ban on abortions in cases of rape.”

The fact that the abortion ban for American military personnel does not even make insurance exceptions for pregnancy as a result of rape might seem strange in any institution – in the contemporary situation, it is worsened by the severe on-going prevalence of sexual violence in the US armed forces.  According to a pending ACLU law suit, women in the US military are twice as likely to experience sexual violence as civilian American women, while a Guardian article last year stated that a female soldier in Iraq is more likely to be assaulted by a fellow soldier than killed in military fire.  Few cases go to trial, although civil liberties groups are pushing for change in institutional culture by promoting increasing numbers of cases, including the lawsuit of 28 plaintiffs against former Secretaries of State Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates, which accuses the institution of failing to adequately prevent rape and sexual assault.  Organisations such as Protect Our Defenders, who work for servicewomen and men who have been raped or assaulted by their fellow service members argue that military systems currently in place often re-victimise assault survivors who speak out, while failing to prosecute perpetrators.  When sexual violence has reached a crisis point in the military, to add the strain of denying women the right to terminate pregnancies that result from rape feels like a final insult from an institution that, if the evidence above is anything to go on, seems to show little concern for protecting servicewomen's autonomy over their physical and psychological well-being.

Moreover, as shocking as the lack of insurance exception even in rape cases is, the abortion ban is not merely problematic because of this double-injustice issue of pregnancies that result from rape in an institution where rape is endemic.  There is also the fundamental principle that servicewomen have less control over their reproductive health than civilian women in the US.  While the proposed Shaheen amendment rightly addresses the unacceptable situation of women pregnant from rape who cannot be insured for a termination of pregnancy, this should not become the whole story: the basic issue of women’s autonomy over their bodies needs to be re-stated.

Yet the argument for the right to control over one’s own body is most likely to fall on deaf ears in one quarter in particular: the US religious right, currently gearing up for the 2012 US Presidential elections.  The same contingent who will likely be the main obstacle to the passage of the MARCH Act and Shaheen Amendment.  The same contingent who most vociferously declare their respect for and allegiance to the US military.  See the contradiction here?  Does this, eventually, fall back to the idea that religious-right traditionalists think of the military in terms of servicemen, not servicemen and women?

As Susan Faludi outlined in her 2008 book The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America, the jingoistic championing of the military as the unimpeachably American institution and symbol left right-wingers with the problem of how to square such unquestioning support with their evident difficulty in accepting the autonomy of women – in this case, it played out in the right’s relationship with and discourse on female soldiers.  Recall, for instance, the sexist and racist manipulation of the story of Private Jessica Lynch – re-cast, in those Bush-era neo-con days, as “precious little Jessi” who had to be “rescued” from the Iraqi doctors who – according to Lynch’s own testimony – were taking excellent care of her after a serious car wreck. 

Conservative America’s unwavering support for the military falters in their inability to support the autonomy of women, and women’s rights.  Resistance to the MARCH Act is in some ways an Obama-era continuation of this ‘precious little Jessi’-ing of servicewomen in the eyes of the American right: a contradictory desire to support an omnipotent army and to render servicewomen docile and incapable of making their own choices, an alignment with the wider ‘war on women’ enacted through encroachments on civilian women’s’ reproductive health.  The MARCH Act is a chance for the American government to support those who defend the country by demonstrating that servicewomen, their health and their autonomy, are valued by the state.  Here’s hoping they take this chance to provide servicewomen with the rights they deserve. 

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