NEW YORK — Though rape is a problem of deep concern to the U.S. military, its health plan doesn't cover abortions for victims who become pregnant — a policy that indignant critics are now pushing to change.
The campaigners include members of Congress, the American Civil Liberties Union, and veterans such as Jessica Kenyon, who says her Army career derailed after she was raped and impregnated by a fellow soldier while serving in South Korea in 2006.
Kenyon, who remembered herself as a gung-ho private hoping to advance through the ranks, said the incident led to her discharge, and she miscarried after flying back to the U.S.
"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," she said. "If I'd had that option, I would have had a chance to keep my career in the Army."
For decades, policies enacted by Congress have prohibited the use of federal funds for abortions — but generally these policies make exceptions for cases of rape and incest. The policy set by Congress for the armed forces in 1981, and still in effect, does not allow the military health care plan to make this exception.
It's this discrepancy — putting servicewomen on a different plane than federal employees, federal prisoners and Medicaid recipients, for example — that fuels much of the anger among those trying to change the policy.
"The current policy is shameful," said Dr. Katherine Scheirman, who served as an Air Force physician for 20 years. "Our military women, who serve and sacrifice for their country, should not have worse health care benefits than civilians who rely on the government for their insurance coverage."
This week, Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif., and five Democratic colleagues introduced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would have changed the policy to allow abortion coverage in cases of rape.
The Republican-controlled House Rules Committee, as it sifted through scores of proposed amendments to the act, did not allow the Davis measure to advance to a stage where it could be debated. It issued no public explanation for the decision.
Davis, in a telephone interview, said the current policy was a particular burden to young, lowly paid servicewomen on duty in war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan where abortions are not available in civilian hospitals.
She cited one case of a soldier in Afghanistan who had to spend several weeks raising funds to pay for her abortion while soldier who allegedly raped her was awaiting trial.
"These women are risking their lives for us — and we abandon them," Davis said.
ACLU legislative counsel Vania Leveille said the effort to change the policy would now shift to the Democratic-controlled Senate, with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., offering to work on the issue. Leveille also said the Obama administration would be asked to engage more actively in trying to make the change.
"What happened in the House was wrong," Leveille said. "Every member of Congress says they support military women, but it's hard to reconcile with that action. For them to turn their backs is incredibly frustrating."
Pentagon spokeswoman Cynthia Smith said the Defense Department would not comment on the legislative efforts to change the policy.
"Our policy implements the law Congress passed," she said in an email Thursday. "The department will continue to follow congressional mandate regarding the funding of abortions and restrictions regarding abortions conducted in DoD medical treatment facilities."
The current policy is explicit, prohibiting payment for abortions "with one single exception — where the life of the mother would be endangered if the fetus were carried to term." Abortions in cases of rape, fetal abnormality or for mental health reasons are not covered.
Among politicians and activists opposed to abortion, there is widespread support for the overall ban on federal funding for the procedure, but varying opinions on the need for exceptions such as rape cases. In general, the current GOP-led House has taken a tough line on abortion — often hewing to views of advocacy groups such as Americans United for Life.
That group's staff counsel, Kellie Fiedorek, said she supports the current military policy.
"There exists no lack of access or demonstrated need to force the American taxpayer to pay for women's abortions whose pregnancies are a result of rape or incest," she said. "If a woman is a victim of the tragic crime of rape ... lawmakers' priority should be to ensure the perpetrator is not free to assault her or other women again in the future."
Debate over the abortion policy comes against a backdrop of widespread concern over the risk of sexual assault faced by the more than 400,000 women serving in the military.
The Defense Department said there were 3,158 reports of sexual assault involving service members last year. A pending federal lawsuit filed on behalf of victims contends sexual assaults are nearly twice as common within the military as in civilian society, and cites data suggesting that nearly one in three women reports being sexually assaulted during their military service.
Our servicewomen "serve valiantly even while they continue to experience sexual assault at shockingly high rates," said Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington legislative office.
Kenyon, now 30, has become a full-time advocate for military victims of sexual assault. From her home base in Bethlehem, Pa., she runs two online support services — BenefitingVeterans.org and MilitarySexualTrauma.org.
In a telephone interview, she said the abortion issue should not be decided by ideology, but rather by what's best for the troops' well-being.
"Don't be the kind of person who wants to push their morality," she said. "Think like this was your daughter, this was your sister who was raped."
American Civil Liberties Union: http://bit.ly/iwBDwH
Army sexual-assault prevention program: http://www.sexualassault.army.mil/