ARLINGTON, Va. — Sexual assault victims advocate Christine Hansen wants to see female troops, especially those deployed to combat zones, have the same access to reproductive health — from contraception to abortion — as any other American woman.
According to the Pentagon’s Care for Victims of Sexual Assaults, a committee formed after reports of rapes and sexual assaults by troops in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan, there were 901 reported cases of sexual assault in 2002, and 1,012 in 2003 throughout the military.
Of those, 118 (24 in 2002 and 94 in 2003) were reported from the Central Command area of responsibility, which includes Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan.
Still more attacks have been reported to the Miles Foundation, an organization that provides services to victims of violence associated with the military, said Hansen, the group’s executive director.
“We have had over 200 cases of reported sexual assaults from women in Iraq and Kuwait,” Hansen said. “I don’t have a clear number of pregnancies, regrettably, but more than half a dozen [of the assaults] have resulted in pregnancies.”
Of the 200 reported cases, not all were rapes, she said.
Central Command, the combatant element responsible for Iraq and Afghanistan, has a policy to evacuate all pregnant servicemembers out of the area of operations “until the pregnancy is resolved and the member can be evaluated and cleared to return to duty,” said spokesman Maj. Matt McLaughlin.
But with evacuations to the military hospital at Landstuhl, Germany, or other overseas locations, the servicewoman would still have a difficult time resolving the situation, critics say.
The foundation and Planned Parenthood Federation routinely lobby Congress to reverse a 1995 law that prevents women in the military, both active duty and dependents, from getting federally funded abortions at military hospitals.
Under current law, abortions are permitted only in three cases: when the mother’s life is in danger, and in cases of rape or incest, and with the latter two, the woman must pay for the procedure.
But with rapes happening in war zones, and the freedom to return to the United States on leave to take care of it privately being more difficult, the movement is getting some traction.
In March, Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, co-wrote an amendment to the Defense Authorization spending bill that would have the Defense Department pay for abortions in cases of rape or incest.
“Any victim facing the horror of rape or sexual assault needs every option and support made available to them,” Snowe said in a statement. “This bill removes a barrier under current law that prohibits the Department of Defense from providing access to critical reproductive health services for our troops.”
The measure made it into the Senate version of the bill, but not the House of Representatives. In September, lawmakers will begin hashing out the differences.
“We’re just looking for the same sort of care and access women in the United States have,” said Jodie Leu, assistant director of Government Relations at Planned Parenthood. “Even poor women in the U.S. don’t have to pay. They can depend on Medicare.”
The Boxer-Snowe amendment is but a first step, she said, to lobbying efforts to get women unfettered access to abortions at military hospitals, Leu said.
Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, or NRLC, wants to see the Boxer-Snowe amendment defeated, he said.
NRLC teams with several pro-life and adoption organizations to inform women of alternatives to abortion.
The issue boils down to protecting servicemembers and punishing abusers, Johnson said.
“The last thing that needs to be done is to give a woman an abortion and have her get right back to work,” Johnson said. “That doesn’t address the problem at all. They need to investigate these cases to the fullest extent and prevent assaults from happening in the first place.”
Accessing abortion treatment isn’t such a big problem for servicewomen and dependents in the United States, who have access to civilian clinics and hospitals, Hansen and Leu noted.
Matters are complicated overseas, where no military hospitals will perform the procedure outside of the three exceptions, and where in some countries, the procedure is outlawed. Women sometimes must inform their chain-of-command if they need to take leave to fly to the United States or elsewhere.
Their push for adequate reproductive health isn’t limited to abortions, however. Both want to see an increase in the number of rape kits in the combat zone, and access to emergency contraception such as what has been dubbed the “morning-after pill,” which is a high dosage of birth control bills that prevents pregnancy.
Hansen said there are roughly 100 rape kits in theater, a number she says is too low for the number of cases the Miles Foundation is handling.