By Kelly McEvers
Illinois Public Media News
By Ankita Rao
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 Peace Corps Equity Act of 2013, which echoes the law that extended the coverage for military women, the Shaheen Amendment. 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.
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.
She said the 1979 appropriations act was most likely an oversight, not an outright decision to leave them without coverage. Friedman hopes the new bill passes and gives volunteers the same benefits as their military peers.
The Shaheen Amendment passed with bipartisan support. Republican senators John McCain of Arizona and Scott Brown of Massachusetts voted for it in 2012.
Calls to anti-abortion-rights groups including the National Right to Life Committee, the Family Research Council and the Susan B. Anthony List were not immediately returned.
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