Congress Must Act to Protect Peace Corps Volunteers

Each year, about 8,000 Americans choose to serve their country by serving in the Peace Corps.  They travel to all corners of the globe, partnering with local communities and working to promote development and stability. More than 60 percent of these volunteers are women. Some of these women find themselves in dangerous situations while living abroad: nearly 10 percent of female Peace Corps volunteers interviewed in a recent study reported that they had been raped during their service.

And each year, Congress votes to deny these women comprehensive reproductive health care.

Unlike other recipients of federal health coverage – including federal employees, residents of the District of Columbia, women in federal prisons, and stateside Peace Corps employees – Peace Corps volunteers are denied access to abortion coverage, even in the extreme cases of rape, life endangerment, and incest.  Since 1979, Congress has voted annually to deny these services to Peace Corps volunteers.

It’s time this changed. Earlier this month, Rep. Nita Lowey and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen introduced the bipartisan Peace Corps Equity Act.  This bill, which has over a dozen cosponsors in the House and nearly twice as many in the Senate, would bring coverage for Peace Corps volunteers in line with other federal government health benefits, and provide abortion coverage in cases of rape, life endangerment, and incest. It’s a critical step toward fairness, and a simple, technical fix that will have a very real impact on the lives of many female Peace Corps volunteers.

Recently, as part of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress ended a similar, longstanding prohibition on military servicemembers accessing abortion coverage in cases of rape and incest – a policy that Gen. Colin Powell called “unfair.”

Peace Corps volunteers deserve, at a minimum, the same medical coverage as other government employees.  President Obama has recognized this: he included abortion coverage equity for Peace Corps volunteers in his budget proposal.  As the President knows, this is a simple, technical fix that will bring fairness to Peace Corps volunteers and ensure that their lives are not further endangered.

It’s time that Congress stops being a barrier for comprehensive reproductive health coverage, and acts to ensure that women who choose to serve in the Peace Corps have access to the services they need.

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