New Study Documents the Human Toll of Unequal Abortion Coverage for Peace Corps Volunteers

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Report released as Returned Peace Corps Volunteers and advocates head to Capitol Hill to call for immediate change in federal policy
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(PRESS RELEASE) A long-standing congressionally-imposed ban on health care coverage for abortion in the Peace Corps in cases of rape, incest, and life endangerment is widely viewed by Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) as “punitive and unfair” and should be immediately lifted, according to a new study released today. Virtually all other women receiving federal healthcare coverage, including federal workers, military service members, and even Peace Corps employees, receive at least limited abortion coverage in these three extreme circumstances.

The study, “No Exceptions: Documenting the Abortion Experiences of U.S. Peace Corps Volunteers,” was conducted by researchers with the University of Ottawa, Cambridge Reproductive Health Consultants, and the Office of Population Research at Princeton University and draws upon interviews with more than 430 RPCVs representing service in 83 different countries.

In documenting more than a dozen women’s personal experiences with abortion while serving in the Peace Corps—from the time before the discriminatory federal ban was put in place in the late 1970s through 2013—the study’s authors conclude that “lifting the federal restrictions on abortion coverage in cases of rape, whether through the appropriations process or a stand-alone bill, would be consistent with this overarching effort to respond better to the needs of sexual assault survivors serving in the Peace Corps.”

The study’s release coincides with a coordinated advocacy effort on Capitol Hill today to change the long-standing discriminatory policy by asking members of Congress to support the Peace Corps Equity Act—a stand-alone federal bill introduced last year in the Senate by the late Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and slated to be reintroduced by Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and will also be introduced in the House of Representatives by Congresswoman Nita Lowey (D-NY). This bill, along with preserving the budgetary fix President Barack Obama has included in his annual budget proposal for FY2015, would provide abortion coverage for Peace Corps Volunteers in cases of rape, incest, and life endangerment.

Said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights:

Peace Corps Volunteers who are rape survivors or battling a life-threatening pregnancy shouldn’t also be faced with the often far-reaching consequences of being unable to pay for basic health care. These strong and brave women are serving their country far from home and deserve the same coverage for reproductive health services as other women who serve our country.

“Today’s study is a stark reminder of what is at stake if this discriminatory policy for women serving in the Peace Corps remains in place. We strongly urge all members of Congress to take every step possible, from the appropriations process to supporting the Peace Corps Equity Act, to finally promote equal health care coverage for those serving in the Peace Corps.”

Among those advocating for equal abortion coverage in the Peace Corps in Washington, D.C. today are Dr. Angel Foster of the University of Ottawa, and Christine Carcano and Mary Kate Shannon—two RPCVs who have publicly spoken out about their own experiences with sexual assault and lack of access to abortion services during their service—as well as representatives from the National Peace Corps Association and the Center for Reproductive Rights.

“Extending basic reproductive health care services to female Peace Corps volunteers is long overdue,” said Senator Shaheen. “Peace Corps Volunteers face inherent risks living and working abroad. There’s no reason they should be denied standard health care services offered to most women with federal health care coverage.”              

“This is about fairness—fairness for American ambassadors working in every corner of the world to save and change lives,” said Congresswoman Lowey. “It is absolutely unconscionable that female Peace Corps Volunteers who are victims of sexual assault, or whose pregnancies endanger their lives, are not afforded the same health care access as virtually all other women with federal health coverage. They deserve our steadfast support, and I am working hard to ensure our volunteers get the health care coverage they need to continue serving our country.”

Peace Corps Volunteers—of which more than 60 percent are women–are only paid a monthly stipend of $250-$300, typically less than the cost of an abortion. Several women interviewed in today’s study reported serious challenges paying out-of-pocket for the procedure. As the report notes one participant explained, “I got a comfortable monthly stipend to be living in those local conditions, but there’s no way that the stipend would have been enough for me to obtain a safe abortion.” 

Over 97 percent of the study’s participants supported efforts to extend health care coverage in cases of life endangerment, rape, and incest.