In 1994, I packed my bags and headed off to begin my two-year-and-three-months’ commitment as a Peace Corps volunteer in Lesotho, a tiny country completely surrounded by South Africa. It was a life-changing experience that forever shaped my views on the world and launched my career in global health and development.
During training, we received extensive information on how best to protect our health and safety. We were assured that in the case of an emergency, our government had our backs. I was told I’d be evacuated in the face of political violence. My health insurance would cover my hospital bills should I be hit by a bus or fall in a ditch or otherwise suffer any accidents on the job.
But if I needed an abortion, I was on my own. Even if I had been raped. Even if the pregnancy threatened my life.
Women make up more than 60 percent of the 8,000-plus Peace Corps volunteers who devote their time and energy in service to populations around the world, working on a range of issues including education, health, youth and community development, business, communications technology, agriculture, and the environment. But despite their service to others, Peace Corps volunteers are denied the same abortion coverage that other federal workers receive in the cases of rape and incest, and when the life of the woman is endangered.
This total ban on abortion for Peace Corps volunteers was attached to the appropriations bill as a rider in 1979 and has been passed every year since. Just before its August recess, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved the bill that funds U.S. foreign affairs, including a provision that would grant women in the Peace Corps the same access to abortion coverage that women in the armed services receive.
Late last year, Congress passed a law to ensure that health coverage for women in the military includes abortion access in the case of sexual assault or incest (coverage already included abortions if the woman’s life would be endangered if the pregnancy were carried to term). Yet, women who serve overseas as Peace Corps volunteers are still denied this same basic health care coverage.
Even though it was a different circumstance than an abortion, one of my closest friends in Lesotho, a fellow Peace Corps volunteer, was beaten close to death with a brick while defending a Mosotho friend from violence. Almost every bone in her face was broken. She was sent home and underwent surgeries in the double digits. Even worse, she faced psychological damage beyond what any of her friends could fix.
While hers was by no means a common experience, we cannot predict the challenges that volunteers will face and what many of them will live with after their service. The least we can do is to make sure that we support them, without judgment, no matter what.
No Peace Corps volunteer should have to endure rape and be denied an abortion because she cannot pay for it. That is why I urge Congress to support this provision in the final budget bill. Women in the Peace Corps should be able to make private medical decisions and access high-quality medical care without the interference of politicians.
Latanya Mapp Frett is the global vice president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America and a returned Peace Corps Volunteer.