Open Letter from a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer: Congressional Ban on Abortion Care Coverage Unacceptable

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Carin Brown Peace Corps

In the early 1970s, I spent two unforgettable years in Punjab, India. It left me with lasting friendships and played a major role in how I see the world, myself, and what I have done with my life since. The Peace Corps instilled in me a desire to see women everywhere empowered to take charge of their lives.

My experiences—as a licensed OB/GYN, and later as the Assistant Medical Director of Planned Parenthood in Maryland—only confirmed that sexual and reproductive health care changes women’s lives. Though I recently retired, my work is not over. In January, I was given the opportunity to accompany Pathfinder International and Population Action International to Peru to see their programs and advocacy work firsthand.

At the Maternal-Perinatal Health Institute in Lima, where we saw post-abortion care services, I learned something shocking—not about the Peruvian health care system but our own. After hearing about my start in the Peace Corps, a Pathfinder staff person told me about the ban: Since 1979, Congress has prohibited the Peace Corps from covering abortion services for its volunteers and trainees, including in cases of rape, incest, or when the life of the mother is at risk. I had no idea this restriction existed.

Like many volunteers, I lived without running water, food refrigeration, or electronic communication and had to walk long distances to the nearest form of transportation. We learned to do without and usually benefitted from the experience, but we shouldn’t be asked to live without equal coverage for basic health care from our own government.

There are more than 8,000 current Peace Corps volunteers—60 percent of them women—who risk their safety every day. My heart goes out to the more than 1,000 volunteers who have reported experiencing sexual assault, including more than 212 rapes or attempted rape, in the last decade alone.   I have no doubt that countless more sexual assaults have gone unreported. Yet, when it comes to abortion, these women, unlike most other women who receive health care coverage from the federal government, are denied basic fairness in access to health care and in making their own personal medical decisions.

This is not the message of the Peace Corps that I served all those years ago. This is not what empowerment looks like. I have taken care of many rape survivors in my career as a physician and to feel cared for and supported after such a traumatic event is such an important part of the healing.

No woman serving our country should face the tragedy of sexual assault. But if she does, she should be able to access the health care and support services she needs. This is what I believe. It’s what Pathfinder believes. Will you stand with us? 

Our country has a responsibility for the citizens it sends abroad to do its work. Why should Peace Corps volunteers be treated any differently?

This past December, President Obama and Congress lifted a similar ban, giving female military service members insurance coverage for abortions in cases of rape and incest. And earlier this year, the late Senator Frank Lautenberg introduced a bill—the Peace Corps Equity Act (S. 813)—that would extend access to abortion for women in the Peace Corps under these same circumstances. This is the same comprehensive coverage other federal employees already receive.

Senator Jeanne Shaheen is now carrying forward this important effort and a provision to fix this inequity was included in the Senate Appropriations Committee approved FY 2014 State Department and Foreign Operations funding bill.

Let us continue this progress. I hope you will join me in in encouraging our Senate to keep language in the bill—to ensure a female Peace Corps volunteer or trainee is able to access an abortion if she is raped, a survivor of incest, or when her life is in danger. 

Our country has a responsibility for the citizens it sends abroad to do its work. Why should Peace Corps volunteers be treated any differently?

Carin Brown is a longtime supporter of Pathfinder International and a returned Peace Corps volunteer who traveled to visit Pathfinder's work in Peru last year.

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