On Wednesday, May 16, advocates were optimistic that legislation requiring emergency contraception to be stocked on all military bases would pass in the House. “We had the votes on Wednesday night. Things were looking good,” says Monica Castellanos, press secretary for Rep. Michael Michaud (D-Maine), one of the lead co-sponsors of the amendment that was scheduled for a vote the next day. But then, something mysterious happened.
For reasons that remain unclear, Michaud withdrew the legislation the next morning. According to Castellanos, it was purely a logistical snafu: “Key supporters had to be in their districts.” But sources close to the issue tell a different story: The legislation, an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, with bipartisan support, was dropped by a Democratic leadership unwilling to go to bat for pro-choice issues. Despite Michaud’s confidence that the votes were there, Democratic leadership wasn’t so sure, and they didn’t want to hang around long enough to find out. The legislation might not have sunk, but they jumped ship anyway.
Emergency contraception, also known as Plan B or the morning-after pill, is available over-the-counter in all 50 states, but women in the U.S. military cannot count on accessing the medication on military bases. A 2003 survey financed by the Defense Department found that almost a third of military women reported being the victim of rape or attempted rape during their tenure in the military. Yet in return for their service, servicewomen are denied access to basic health care. “The situation is unconscionable,” says Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation. “If you are a military woman in Iraq, and you are raped, it is this country’s obligation to make sure you have access to emergency contraception.”
Apparently, the Department of Defense agrees. In April 2002, it added emergency contraception to its Basic Care Formulary, a list of 214 medications required to be stocked at all military treatment facilities. (The list includes Levitra, a medication that treats erectile dysfuction.) But one month later, the medication was quietly removed in direct response to pressure from the Bush administration. “The Defense Department agreed that it should be available – certainly, this is an issue we should have been able to win,” Saporta says.
For the past three congressional sessions, Michaud has worked to bring the medication back onto the Formulary. Michaud believes access to emergency contraception is a “major public health issue,” a “fair, common-sense step that everyone should be able to agree on.” After all of his work, it appeared that this was the legislation’s shining moment. “We’ve introduced three bills so far for emergency contraception, but in this Congress, it looked most probable that we would [succeed],” Castellanos says. Reproductive rights advocates say that the amendment presented a critical opportunity for Democrats to break from Congress’ conservative stance on choice. “This was the moment that Congress could signal that [they] were going to do business differently,” says Kirsten Moore, president of Reproductive Health Technologies Project.
Many women in the military rely on military treatment facilities for all of their health needs, and don’t always have access to basic care such as testing for pregnancy and STIs. Furthermore, they are only allowed to have abortions if they are the victims of sexual assault and are willing to report the assault.
In 2004 testimony to the Congressional Women’s Caucus, servicewomen who were sexually assaulted reported that they received faulty follow-up care after an abortion. Laurie (the women’s full names were not given), a sergeant in the Army returning from Afghanistan, testified that after her sexual assault by a coalition soldier, she was given “a lot of antibiotics, rather than emergency contraception” or testing for STDs or HIV. Beth, a major in the Army Reserves, served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and was sexually assaulted by a noncommissioned officer. She testified that she was given “a lot of [birth control] pills to take” instead of emergency contraception.
What’s also frustrating is that Congress has been paying more attention to the need to provide military men and women with better health care. The new budget for the Veterans Affairs Administration includes the largest single increase in veterans’ health care funding in history. On May 23, the House passed a group of bills to improve the care and screening processes of potential brain injuries for veterans, extend health care for combat veterans and improve outreach programs. Many of the female veterans who benefit from these new programs, however, will still suffer from a lack of reproductive health care while in the service.
The amendment’s disappearance is an ill wind. “You look at the vote, or the lack of the vote, and it sends a chill down the spines of reproductive rights advocates,” Moore says. “These votes can be controversial. We understand that there can be political heat. But the more we run away from these votes, the more momentum we give to our opposition.”