Proponents of ending the ban on women in the military using their health insurance to pay for abortions in cases of rape and incest stepped up the political pressure on Wednesday, insisting that this year's defense bill be used to finally lift the prohibition.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., chief sponsor of a provision in Senate legislation, and two retired Army officers described the current law preventing insurance coverage as morally and economically unfair to the more than 214,000 women serving in the U.S. military. They promised to lobby the chief House and Senate negotiators to end the ban.
The Senate passed its version of the defense bill on Tuesday and now must reconcile it with the House measure, which does not include the abortion provision. Three of the four top negotiators — Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash. — favor lifting the ban.
On the eve of negotiations, a bipartisan group of eight senators and House members sent a letter to Levin, McCain, Smith and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., urging them to lift the ban.
"The Department of Defense is making great strides to provide additional opportunities to women. However, repealing this inequitable restriction on female service members' health care can only be accomplished by congressional action," the lawmakers wrote.
Among those signing the letter were Shaheen, Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., Scott Brown, R-Mass., and Rep. Chris Gibson, R-N.Y., all members of the Armed Services panels.
In 2005, facing conservative pressure, negotiators dropped the provision. Shaheen said it won't happen this time.
"We are watching. The women in the military are watching. Women across this country are watching," she told reporters at a Capitol Hill news conference. "This is a matter of equity, it's a matter of doing the right thing for the women who are serving in our military."
Lawmakers will have to decide the issue after a fierce election-year debate about women's rights and abortion.
Current law allows the Defense Department to provide insurance coverage for abortions only in cases in which the life of the mother is endangered. In May, the Senate Armed Services Committee voted 16-10 for Shaheen's amendment to the bill expanding the coverage to cases of rape and incest.
"It is an indefensible law," said retired Maj. Gen. Gale Pollock, who served in the Army for 36 years and was acting surgeon general for the service in 2007.
Shaheen pointed out that federal employees can receive insurance coverage for abortion in cases of rape and incest and even women who are incarcerated get coverage in cases of rape. The issue also is costly as enlisted women with less than two years of service make about $17,892 a year.
Retired Maj. Gen. Dennis Laich said the current law betrays the trust between the American people and those who serve "by providing our servicewomen with second-class health coverage."