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(Washington, DC) – The US government should allow US servicewomen who are rape survivors to make their own decisions about their pregnancies. On May 24, 2012, the US Senate Armed Services Committee will consider a proposal under a military funding bill that would end the ban on military insurance coverage for abortion in cases of rape and incest.

“It is outrageous that US servicewomen enduring sexual assault while serving their country are also kept from making decisions about their pregnancies,” said Meghan Rhoad, women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Senate has an opportunity to end this double injustice by revoking the health insurance ban on abortions in cases of rape.”

US law prohibits the armed forces from providing health coverage for abortion except in cases in which the life of the pregnant woman is in danger. This policy diverges from other federal health insurance programs such as Medicaid, which include exceptions for pregnancies resulting from rape and incest.

In 2010, 166,729 women were serving as active duty enlisted personnel in the US military, while 35,341 served as commissioned officers. The military estimates that 19,000 sexual assaults of military personnel occur each year in total, including rape as well as other types of sexual assault. Defense Department records indicate that 3,192 sexual assaults were reported in 2011, but the department estimates that only 15 percent of assaults are reported.

The Senate Armed Services Committee is expected to consider an amendment offered by Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, to provide coverage for abortion in cases of pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. The amendment would be included in the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act.

In April, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced a series of initiatives to address sexual assault in the military. The initiatives included creating “special victims’ units” composed of sexual assault experts within each branch of the armed services, maintaining central records on disciplinary and administrative proceedings related to sexual assault, and improving training and awareness programs aimed at sexual assault prevention and response.

In February 2010, the military announced that all bases overseas would be required to stock emergency contraception, a drug that can prevent pregnancy if taken within a limited period after sexual intercourse. A 2008 study by US Army researchers found that 65 percent of pregnancies among US servicewomen had not been intentional – 51 percent of the women surveyed said their pregnancies had definitely been unintended, while 14 percent said they had been ambivalent.

“The Obama administration has taken some positive steps to address rape in the military, but it is hamstrung by legislation preventing the military from responding to the needs of rape victims,” Rhoad said. “Congress should stop trampling on the rights of military women whose bodily integrity has already been attacked through sexual assault.”

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