Abortion Funding for Peace Corps' Volunteers Advances With Republican Support

Peace Corps volunteers raise their hands to swear in during a ceremony in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in 2011. Peace Corps volunteers raise their hands to swear in during a ceremony in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in 2011. Heng Sinith/AP file photo

Congress has repeatedly blocked federal funding for abortions for Peace Corps members, even in the event of rape, incest, or life endangerment. Until now.

For the first time, the Senate and House Appropriations Committees have both approved bills that lift the ban on abortion funding for volunteers in the above circumstances. The movement gives reason to believe Congress may actually approve the funding this year.

The House committee passed an amendment allowing for the coverage as part of the Fiscal 2015 state and foreign operations appropriations bill in a voice vote Tuesday afternoon. Senate Appropriations passed similar language in the same bill last week.

Since 1979, insurance through the Peace Corps has been prohibited from covering abortions under any circumstances, even though emergency coverage was available for other recipients of government-sponsored insurance—including federal employees and Medicaid recipients. Congress eliminated a similar prohibition for members of the military last year. Federal funding for abortions is prohibited outside the above three situations.

Opponents of the Peace Corps ban argue that volunteers should have the same access to coverage. And, they say, given that the Peace Corps is 60 percent female, and typically in potentially riskier situations, the emergency coverage is all the more critical.

The appropriations process has followed a predictable pattern in recent years, however, with the Senate aiming to lift the funding restriction, and the House repeatedly upholding it. Without bicameral support, attempts to strike the ban have fallen flat.

However, this year was the first in which a stand-alone bill addressing the issue was introduced in the House, giving abortion-rights advocates hope that this time might be different.

The Peace Corps Equity Act of 2014 was introduced by Democratic Rep. Nita Lowey of New York in May, while a corresponding bill was reintroduced by Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire in the Senate. The effort was originally spearheaded by the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg.

President Obama has included funding for emergency abortion services for Peace Corps volunteers in his budget proposal for the past two years.

"This is the first time it has gotten through House Appropriations," Matthew Dennis, communications director for House Appropriations Democrats, wrote in an email. "The fact that both House and Senate committees have approved it is important as the process moves forward."

A full vote on the legislation has not yet been scheduled in the House or Senate.

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