Abortion Fight Heats up in Defense Budget Debate

Abortion rights groups say current law discriminates against women in military.

June 15, 2011, 4:30 PM

June 16, 2011— -- Jessica Kenyon was applying to become an officer in the Army and had just earned her spurs when she found out she was pregnant.

Little did the now 30-year-old realize that her military career would be short-lived. Kenyon, who was sexually assaulted by another servicemember, was denied an abortion at the military hospital in North Korea where she was stationed. Instead, she was told her only option would be to find a facility in Seoul or leave the country.

"You don't speak the language. You don't necessarily know how clean everything is, so you don't want to get sick," she recalls. At military bases, "they absolutely will not do it at all, no matter what, except for the health of the mother."

Under current law, only those women whose lives are endangered can get an abortion at military hospitals. Victims of rape and incest aren't entitled to federal funds for abortion services, even though other beneficiaries of government health care, like prisoners and Medicaid recipients, are.

Abortion rights supporters are hoping to capitalize on the ongoing defense budget debate to build momentum for a provision that would allow servicemembers who are victims of rape and incest to get an abortion at military hospitals.

A number of Senate Democrats, led by New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, will officially introduce the MARCH -- Military Access to Reproductive Care and Health -- Act today, following on the heels of a similar House bill that was announced last week.

The bills are likely to trigger another political fight on an issue that has become the battleground for conservatives in the current Congress. Last month, an effort by Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif., to interject a similar amendment into the 2012 Defense Authorization Act did not even make it past the Republican-controlled House Rules Committee.

The new stand-alone bills being introduced this month would allow rape and incest victims to receive an abortion under the military health system, and let women get abortions on military bases with private funds.

"This is really a question of fairness," said Vania Leveille, senior legislative council at the American Civil Liberties Union, which is leading the efforts along with a number of other abortion rights groups.

Citing the recent passage in the House of Representatives of the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act" -- which bans all federal funding for abortions at federal facilities except in cases of rape, incest and a threat to the life of the victim -- proponents of the MARCH Act argue that military women are being unfairly marginalized.

"If other populations who rely on the government for their health care -- like federal employees, like women on Medicaid, like women in prison... [have] the option of terminating the pregnancy" in cases of rape and incest, then "why not military women, and why are military women treated as second class citizens? Why are they treated differently than the civilian women?" Leveille said. "I don't see how that's excusable."

Anti-abortion groups, however, argue that no taxpayer money should go toward abortion services when facilities and doctors are funded by the government, not even if the women were to pay with their own money.

"Medical facilities serving our military are meant to preserve live, not destroy it," said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List. "Yet this bill would turn military facilities into abortion clinics, using personnel and equipment subsidized by taxpayers. It is time for the abortion industry to stop using the military as a place to advance its agenda."

Efforts to dismantle the current law aren't new. Late last year, then-Sen. Roland Burris, D-Ill., introduced an amendment in the 2011 Defense Authorization bill that would effectively lift the current restrictions. But that didn't find support even in the Democratic-controlled Senate, which had to strip all controversial funding from the budget bill in the end to ensure its passage.

Abortion Groups Seek to Lift Restrictions on Services for Military Women

The amendment offered by Rep. Davis last month also made little headway in the GOP-controlled House.

Rape is a growing concern for the Department of Defense and for the more than 400,000 women who serve in the U.S. military.

A Department of Defense report released last year showed that sexual assault in the military had risen by 11 percent in the past year, and by 16 percent in war zones. There were more than 3,200 such reported cases in that fiscal year.

"It's a sizeable concern," Rep. Davis told ABC News. "Sexual assault and abuse is a large concern for all the military services. Any of the services will tell you that. In fact, it's become quite a priority for them to address this issue."

"It's common for them [women] to have been assaulted and raped than it is to have been injured in battlefield," she added.

The stigma that's associated with sexual assault, and the added dilemma of confidentiality and of being ostracized by peers and commanders, also prevents many women from speaking out about their traumatic experiences.

"It was an environment where you are scared to ask about anything," Kenyon recalls of her own experience. "Saying something like that would have probably got you a court-martial."

Kenyon's pregnancy eventually ended in a miscarriage on the plane back to the United States, as did her military career.

"It's a disgrace, especially when it comes to rape and sexual assault, that this option is not available," said Kenyon, who left the military in 2006 and now works with victims of military sexual abuse. "To leave them unprotected and out of options, I think it's a big betrayal to the women who were assaulted."

When asked about the proposed bills and the push by abortion rights groups, a spokeswoman for the U.S. military said "the department will continue to follow Congressional mandate regarding the funding of abortions and restrictions regarding abortions conducted in DOD medical treatment facilities."