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Editorial: Give military women equal abortion rights

Updated: November 10, 2011 3:36PM

Every woman who gets health insurance though the federal government faces a ban on coverage for abortion. We don’t support this policy, but the government at least allows for a few crucial and humane exceptions. For nearly every group, abortion is covered in the case of rape or incest.

But one maddening and profoundly unfair outlier exists: the U.S. Department of Defense.

If a U.S. servicewomen is raped — a shockingly frequent occurrence — she not only must navigate a sometimes sexist military culture as she attempts to get care and justice, she also must pay for the abortion herself.

And because some overseas military bases don’t provide abortions, this can include a costly flight home to find a doctor who will provide an abortion.

Meanwhile, federal employees, Medicaid beneficiaries, even women in prison, have access to abortion coverage if they’re raped. Even a bill backed by ardent abortion opponents that passed the House in May, the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” includes a rape and incest exception.

It’s time to reverse this absurd policy and, at a minimum, give servicewomen the same rights as any other woman covered by the federal government. That’s why we’re enthusiastically backing an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would allow for a rape and incest exception. The amendment is expected to be offered in the U.S. Senate soon. We urge Illinois’ two senators to support this basic act of fairness.

Servicewomen have lacked a rape exception since 1981, with a brief respite under President Bill Clinton. Meanwhile, the number of assaults against women have skyrocketed. In 2010, nearly 3,200 sexual assaults were reported in the military, a number that studies show represents just a fraction of total assaults.

Passing this amendment is a crucial first step in improving treatment of military women, but it’s just one step.

One young woman we spoke to, Jessica Kenyon, says she got no support and was ostracized after saying she was raped and sexually assaulted.

Kenyon strongly supports the rape exception but worries women will continue to be left to fend for themselves.

“There is so much torture when you report an assault,” Kenyon told us. “What will women have to do to prove they were raped?”

Just the beginning, indeed.

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