On her second tour in Peru as a Peace Corps volunteer, Mary Kate Shannon, 27, was raped by a Peruvian man in a youth hostel near where she was stationed. After reporting the attack to the Peace Corps, she was sent home for counseling, where she then reported feelings of nausea to the medical staff. When her doctor suggested she take a pregnancy test, the agency’s international health coordinator told her that the Peace Corps would not pay for an abortion if she were, in fact, pregnant. This is the case for all women working for the Peace Corps across 77 countries, no matter what the conditions of the pregnancy are.
Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey intends to present a bill on Thursday overturning the ban on Peace Corps-funded abortions that has been around since 1979, and includes prohibitions on some exceptions to the no-abortion-funding rule of the federal government found in other government organizations. The bill, proposed by Senator Lautenberg, referred to as the Peace Corps Equity Act, is backed by many groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, The Policy Council, and many other rights groups. In President Obama’s fiscal plan for 2014, this ban will be lifted, guaranteeing comprehensive health care for all government-employed women, including those in the Peace Corps.
Although similar bills have received bipartisan support, this kind of reform always faces challenges in Washington. Anti-abortion groups plan on fighting efforts to remove the ban, which they view as an effort by the Obama administration to extend abortion rights to women. These groups have failed to recognize the relative similarities of this bill to other already standing regulations in the federal government for women’s health care, which is extended to women in all forms — including abortion and even parenting classes — involved in the military, Navy, and other civil service groups and government organizations.
Some vocal naysayers of the bill argue that what is needed is further information on protecting the women of the Peace Corps, and not relative “band-aid” legislation for women who have been victimized. While Congress does not argue that all volunteers of the Peace Corps should be prioritized, the passage of a 2011 law that provides better protection for volunteers who report wrong doings and give them better training on how to avoid attacks and assault provides structure for improvement that many Peace Corps volunteers can look forward to.
As volunteers and civil servants, these women are providing a service to America that is invaluable and must be regarded as such. It is the least the federal government can do to provide support and care to victims of the reality of the inherently dangerous position they have put themselves in out of the dedication to a better world.