The Peace Corps Equity Act: A Step Forward in Expanding Abortion Access

Peace Corps AfricaLast month, President Obama signed into law the new budget for 2015, which includes coverage for Peace Corps volunteers who need abortions in cases of rape, incest, and life endangerment. Why is this news item a big deal? Because 63 percent of Peace Corps volunteers are women, a first-trimester abortion costs more than a Peace Corps volunteer makes in a month, and sexual assault is a risk for Peace Corps volunteers. Of course, abortion and sexual assault are difficult subjects, and when you put them both together and remind the public that, until now, Peace Corps volunteers who became pregnant as a result of sexual assault while on the job were subjected to undue financial burdens on top of everything else, you might see a lot of criticism of the Peace Corps. And, for returned Peace Corps volunteers, that criticism might sting.

The Peace Corps Equity Act represents an important step forward.

As a returned Peace Corps volunteer, I have a hard time writing this piece. I feel like I am airing our dirty laundry.

In my experience, most people are unfamiliar with the Peace Corps. And when all that makes the news is that the Peace Corps “fails” its female volunteers with respect to abortion and sexual assault, it’s hard for those of us who know and love the Peace Corps to talk openly about these issues.

The Peace Corps, however, has failed no one — they have had their hands tied by rules put into place decades ago by our government. The Helms Amendment prohibits the use of U.S. funds to pay for foreign abortions, including those of Peace Corps volunteers. The first time I ever heard about it was during training, when we were told that it meant we could not discuss abortion with locals or counsel around abortion as an option.

The Helms Amendment, and all that it entailed, wasn’t something I had ever thought about before. After all, not only did I live in America, I lived in a post-Roe v. Wade America! The government wasn’t going to stick its nose into someone else’s reproductive business. Of course, this was in 2006, before “legitimate rape” and TRAP laws became such a large part of the political landscape.

As we neared the end of our training, we had a security briefing. One of my fellow Peace Corps trainees brought up the question: What happens if a pregnancy is a result of sexual assault? That was when we heard that the Peace Corps insurance wouldn’t cover abortion. Yes, they would pay for a flight back to the United States for “medical treatment,” but not for the procedure itself — we’d have to pay for an abortion, despite the circumstances, out of pocket.

Luckily, no one I served with had to grapple with an unwanted pregnancy, so no one had to make the difficult decision either to return to the United States or try to find one of the back-alley providers we knew existed in our service areas — although we always heard stories. Thankfully, now that the Peace Corps Equity Act has been signed into law, volunteers who become pregnant as a result of rape will never find themselves grappling with that decision again.

Nonetheless, the specter of pregnancy was terrifying for women where I served. If you were a host country national, it was one of the most dangerous times of your life. If you were a Peace Corps volunteer, it meant you would be sent home. Peace Corps volunteers had access to birth control pills, which every heterosexually active woman I knew was more diligent about taking than she was with her anti-malarial meds. And we had access to condoms, though heat breaks down latex, and when the “cold” season was still 100 degrees Fahrenheit, they weren’t trusted as the most reliable form of birth control. But if the worst happened, we knew that the Peace Corps could only do so much for us. And when our monthly stipend was about $100 a month, there was no way we would be able to pay for an expensive medical procedure back in the States.

Despite the dangers and the fears, I loved my service. I loved my community, both the people whom I served and the people with whom I served. I would not be the person I am today, doing what I do now, if I had not been a Peace Corps volunteer. I don’t think I have ever met a volunteer, whether they finished their two-year commitment or had to leave early, who does not feel that way. Please keep that in mind when you read articles that talk about some of the not-so-positive aspects of service. Please keep that in mind when you talk to a returned Peace Corps volunteer and we seem defensive about the policies surrounding abortion access in the Peace Corps.

The new rule, allowing abortion care for Peace Corps volunteers in cases of rape, incest, and life endangerment, is an important step forward, and will give those serving, and those who will serve, a little peace of mind so they can go and do their jobs. But these provisions are not enough, and they never will be until we don’t need to ask permission or prove that we deserve medical care. Abortion must be a right extended to all Peace Corps volunteers, no matter their circumstances. Because everyone deserves the right to control their own bodies and their own destinies, regardless of how they became pregnant or the effects a pregnancy has on their health.