By Sarah Lipton-Lubet, Policy Counsel, ACLU Washington Legislative Office
This morning, former Peace Corps volunteer Carol Clark will testify before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, along with other sexual assault survivors, in a hearing addressing "problems of safety and security" in the Peace Corps. Yesterday, ABC News gave us a taste of her story. In the early 1980s, Clark was twice raped during her service in Nepal, and then forced out of the program by officials who thought it more prudent to blame the victim than actually address the safety of the volunteers in their care. Appalling accounts of recent sexual violence in the corps moved her to come forward now.
Clark, like many other rape survivors, faced the compounded trauma of learning that she had become pregnant as a result of the attack. She made a decision about what was best for her, and chose to end the pregnancy. "I would not have been able to endure — to cope [if I continued the pregnancy]." However, the institution that she relied on for her medical care — the U.S. Peace Corps — was barred from giving her coverage for the full range of medical options, including abortion (even though according to Clark, the Peace Corps tried to put a thumb on the scale, telling her that she had two choices — end her pregnancy or go home).
Since 1979, Congress has prohibited the Peace Corps from providing coverage of abortion services for volunteers and trainees with no exception. Even the allowances for abortion access in cases of rape, incest, and life endangerment that are found in other federal restrictions are denied to women serving in the Peace Corps — despite the fact that these women serve in countries where good and safe medical care is hard to come by, and that the Peace Corps has an egregious and unaddressed sexual assault problem on its hands. According to an ABC News investigation, and internal Peace Corps statistics, "[m]ore than 1,000 young American women have been raped or sexually assaulted in the last decade while serving as Peace Corps volunteers in foreign countries."
A spokesperson for the Peace Corps acknowledged to ABC that federal law prohibits the Corps from paying for any and all abortion care, but said that it's not their current policy to try to influence a woman's decision about the course of her pregnancy, and that such a policy would be "unacceptable." Never mind that denying health care coverage of abortion care does exactly that.
A quick glance at the Peace Corps manual on pregnancy also reveals that current Corps policy can still impose a Hobson's choice. For one, if a volunteer or trainee becomes pregnant, she "may not continue her Peace Corps service unless she is given both medical and programmatic approval." What's programmatic approval? Well, in part it includes a determination as to whether a single volunteer's "pregnancy is culturally acceptable and will not impair the agency's image." If your pregnancy is deemed "unacceptable," or "image impairing," you're on the next plane home.
Twenty-five years has passed since Clark's ordeal, and the same discriminatory policies are still in place. Here's to hoping that her story can help bring about long overdue change: repeal of the punitive ban on abortion coverage for women serving in the Peace Corps, and enactment of policies that leave private decisions about pregnancy where they belong — with women.