You can read Lautenberg's bill here:Last year, something surprising happened: A piece of legislation about abortion made it through both chambers of Congress and was signed into law by President Obama.
It was a law providing insurance coverage for abortion for military women in the case of rape or incest. The bipartisan support enjoyed by the military trumped politics as usual, which generally holds that Republicans and Democrats have to fight over anything involving abortion.
But will the women who volunteer for the Peace Corps inspire a similar truce on the same issue?Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) is banking on it. Lautenberg introduced a bill Thursday called the , which echoes the law that extended the coverage for military women, the . The new bill, also co-sponsored by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), would overturn a 1979 appropriations bill that banned the Peace Corps from offering this benefit in its federal health plan.
Peace Corps volunteers "face inherent risks to their safety and security," according to a statement by Lautenberg. More than 1,000 Peace Corps volunteers reported experiencing sexual assault between 2000 and 2009, including more than 221 rapes or attempted rapes. Women make up about 60 percent of Peace Corps volunteers serving abroad.
The bill does not yet have a House sponsor. - NPR, 4/29/13
Lautenberg's bill has been endorsed by the National Peace Corps Association (NPCA):
The legislation is also endorsed by the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, NARAL Pro-Choice America, Center for Reproductive Rights, Guttmacher Institute, Advocates for Youth, Population Connection, Ipas, American Civil Liberties Union, National Women’s Law Center, Population Action International, National Partnership for Women & Families, Center for Health and Gender Equity, The Population Institute, and the National Abortion Federation.The National Peace Corps Association (NPCA), the nation’s leading nonprofit organization supporting Returned Peace Corps Volunteers and the Peace Corps community, praised New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg’s introduction of the Peace Corps Equity Act of 2013.
This legislation would fix a current inequality, amending the Peace Corps Act and allowing Peace Corps Volunteers to receive the same coverage for abortion services — in the narrow cases of rape, incest and life endangerment — as employees and others are provided under various health care plans.
“When it comes to health services and support for Peace Corps Volunteers, it is imperative they are treated with equity in relation to other individuals serving our nation overseas,” said NPCA Director of Communications Erica Burman. “Senator Lautenberg’s legislation is another important component of ensuring that equity.”
Last year, Congress unanimously approved a similar fix in the Fiscal Year 2012 Defense Authorization Act, providing such services for military servicewomen. Peace Corps staff – like other federal employees – also have this provision in federal health plans.
Given that Peace Corps Volunteers are currently denied a coverage that is offered to Peace Corps staff, and given that Congress correctly fixed this inequity last year for our military servicewomen, it is the Association’s hope that there will be swift and strong bi-partisan action in the Senate, to provide more fairness for the thousands of female Peace Corps Volunteers serving our country each year. - The National Peace Corps Association (NPCA), 4/25/13
Here are a few instances that exemplify why we need this bill:
As Mary Kate Shannon waited to find out if she was pregnant after being raped for the second time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Peru, the healthcare coordinator told her her options were limited. “If I were pregnant, the Peace Corps could not pay for the abortion due to some kind of federal law,” Shannon recalled in an interview with Salon. They would, however, pay for parenting classes.Here's another example:
“I felt betrayed,” Shannon said. “I felt like it was a decision that was going to be made for me. I wasn’t in a place financially where I felt like I could pay for it.”
The pregnancy test came back negative, but the experience led Shannon to support the newly introduced Peace Corps Equity Act, which would extend insurance coverage for Peace Corps volunteers for abortions in instances of rape. ”The Peace Corps is the only government agency that doesn’t have [insurance coverage of abortion services] for women who become pregnant as a result of rape – it’s a technical fix in that sense,” said Casey Frazee of First Response Action, an advocacy group for Peace Corps volunteers who are survivors of sexual assault.
Women make up about 60 percent of Peace Corps volunteers. It’s difficult to know whether the rate of sexual violence, reported or unreported, is higher for them than in the United States, but their often-isolated circumstances, the perception of young American women as sexually available, and institutional neglect all exacerbated the situation. “Faraway legal systems, magnified aloneness and isolation, being away from family in your greatest hour of need, and the unique form of mental health support we receive because of limited in country resources volunteers receive if they chose to return to service,” were some of the factors Shannon cited in a blog post for First Response Action.
That indifference or victim-blaming had been the culture of the Peace Corps for decades became clear in the testimony before Congress for what would become the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act, signed by Obama in 2011. Dr. Karestan Koenen testified that after being raped as a volunteer in Niger, she experienced a series of inadequate or harmful responses, including the staff member at the inspector general’s office who told her, “I am so sick of you girls going over there, drinking, dancing and flirting, and then, if a guy comes on to you, you say you have been raped when you have led them on.”
Carol Marie Clark, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal in the mid-1980s, testified that after she was raped by the program director, the Peace Corps told her to “terminate my pregnancy or terminate my service with the Peace Corps.” She flew to Honolulu and had an abortion, but the Peace Corps “provided no funding for the procedure. Instead, the family of my best friend sent me the money I needed.” When she returned to Nepal, she was raped and beaten by a Nepalese official who held her captive at knife point for hours. Clark cited a 2010 annual volunteer survey that indicated that nearly 40 percent of victims of rape, 44 percent of victims of attempted rape, and nearly 50 percent of victims of sexual assault had decided not to report the crime. - Salon, 4/26/13
Along with Shaheen, Senators Barbara Boxer (D. CA), Kristen Gillibrand (D. NY), Chris Murphy (D. CT), Patty Murray (D. WA) and Elizabeth Warren (D. MA) are also co-sponsors of the Peace Corps Equity Act of 2013.Echo Bergquist, who served in the Peace Corps in southern Kazakhstan, said the organization hadn’t addressed the issue of unwanted pregnancies during her orientation in 2009. While the health plan had otherwise been more than adequate — even picking up the tab for Tylenol — she said the issue of pregnancies resulting from sexual violence weren’t addressed.
“Maybe it’s uncomfortable to say to these young enthusiastic Americans,” she said. “But in countries like Kazakhstan, it’s a real threat.”
During her two years as a teacher abroad, Bergquist said, she often felt unsafe and was grabbed by men on several occasions. Even so, Bergquist considers herself lucky. She said her program was cut short when several cases of more serious sexual assaults were reported. The Peace Corps website cited “operational considerations” and suspended the Kazakhstan program in 2011.
The same year, Congress passed the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act, named for a volunteer who was murdered while serving in Benin. The act, which called for more transparency and better treatment of sexual violence victims, came soon after an ABC 20/20 report about Puzey’s murder and what critics called a “blame the victim” culture that they said kept these issues under the radar.
While the Peace Corps responded with stricter protocols, advocates of the equity bill said covering abortions is a necessary addition to women working abroad.
“I think this should be a no-brainer. There’s no rational reason to deny women in the Peace Corps coverage,” said Andrea Friedman, a reproductive health director at the National Partnership for Women and Families, an advocacy group. - KOSU, 4/29/13
If you would like more information on the Peace Corps Equality Act of 2013, you can contact Lautenberg or Shaheen's offices for more details and to address your questions:
Lautenberg: (202) 224-3224
Shaheen: (202) 224-2841