Defense Bill Block Slashes Abortion Access, Gay Rights And Immigrant Rights

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Defense Bill Block Slashes Abortion Access, Gay Rights And Immigrant Rights

Amie Newman

Republicans block a vote on the Defense Authorization Bill and refuse to allow consideration of the rights of servicewomen seeking abortion care - with their own funds; the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, allowing gay military members the right to live openly and freely while serving this country; and the DREAM Act which allows young immigrants a pathway towards citizenship by going to college or joining the American military.

Republicans managed a triple-play yesterday when, in one fell swoop, they stomped on the rights of many of our servicewomen and men, as well as immigrants who have come to America without the proper paperwork, seeking a college education and/or an opportunity to serve in our military and a path to citizenship. By blocking a vote on the Defense Bill yesterday, by a vote of 56-43, Republicans refused to consider three key amendments included in the bill.

The Burris Amendment, if passed, would have allowed those women who serve our country access to abortion care on military bases. The DREAM Act proposes to provide college- or military-bound immigrants, in this country, a green card. Finally, the most well known of the measures, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT), which allows gay servicemembers to serve in the military only as long as they don’t “reveal” their homosexuality, would have been repealed.

Two Democrats from Arkansas, Senator Blanche Lincoln and Senator Mark Pryor voted with Republicans.

The bill has been more politicized than ever before precisely because of these amendments. According to the Denver Post,

Roe is gone. The chaos is just beginning.

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Although the House of Representatives included repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” in its version of the bill, it will now be much harder to get the provision in a final version this year. Prospects for repeal will get even more complicated if Democrats suffer significant election losses in November, advocates fear.

“The whole thing is a political train wreck,” Richard Socarides, a former White House adviser on gay rights during the Clinton administration, told The Associated Press.

Socarides said President Barack Obama “badly miscalculated” the Pentagon’s support for repeal, while Democrats made only a “token effort” to advance the bill.

“If it was a priority for the Democratic leadership, they would get a clean vote on this,” he told AP.

The Defense Bill is, of course, critically important to ensuring the safety and well-being of our servicemembers. Among other things, it provides for a 1.4 percent pay increase, as well as $725 billion for the Pentagon, which includes $159 billion for the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s difficult to see, then, why Republicans are standing in the way of a vote.

Not only did a federal judge, last month, rule Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell unconstitutional but a poll in May of this year shows a majority of Americans support repealing the policy. As well, some of the Republicans who now refuse to vote on the Defense bill, actually support the DREAM Act. Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett voted to include the DREAM act in the 2007 Defense Authorization Bill. Even more astounding, although Sen. John McCain voiced extreme opposition to what he feels is a political ploy on the part of Democrats, Think Progress notes,

“according to military experts and the Department of Defense’s FY2010-12 Strategic Plan, the DREAM Act’s service component is a vital objective to help the military “shape and maintain a mission-ready All Volunteer Force.” In fact, according University of California, San Diego’s Jorge Mariscal, “the Pentagon helped write the DREAM Act.

As for DADT? Think Progress notes, the opposition, on the part of Republicans, to including a repeal  in the bill is at best “hollow”,

Senate Republicans’ chief arguments against the inclusion of the DADT repeal and the DREAM Act in this year’s defense authorization bill centered on claims the DADT repeal superseded Pentagon review and that the DREAM Act was wholly irrelevant to national defense and the military. While previously supporting the repeal, McCain blasted Democrats for trying to “jam” it through “without even trying to figure out what the impact on battle effectiveness would be.” Sens. Scott Brown (R-MA) and George Voinovich (R-OH) concurred, insisting that the repeal was “premature” and should “wait for the Department of Defense to issue its report” in December. However, the DADT compromise agreed to by the Senate Armed Services Committee in May explicitly states that while the repeal would be attached to this year’s defense authorization bill, implementation would be delayed until Congress has considered the Pentagon’s review, and military officials certify that the repeal is “consistent with the military’s standards of readiness, effectiveness, unit cohesion, and recruitment and retention.” If these requirements are not met, the DADT policy “shall remain in effect.”

The final measure included in the Defense Authorization bill is the Burris Amendment. The amendment seeks to ensure that servicewomen who are in need of abortion care are able to access that care at a military hospital. Currently, military hospitals will only perform an abortion in cases where the pregnancy is the result of rape, incest, of if the woman’s life is threatened by the pregnancy. The amendment does not, despite wholly false mainstream media news outlets’ and far right anti-choice advocates’ claims, ask taxpayers to pay for abortion care. It only seeks to provide for military women access to abortion care on military bases, should they need it. The patient is responsible for covering the cost, herself. Media Matters dissects the deceit in a Washington Times oped where anti-choice activist Denise Burke repeatedly claims that taxpayer funds would be used to fund abortion care on military bases. In fact, while the Hyde Amendment – federal law for almost forty years – bars taxpayer money for abortion except in cases of rape, incest or when the mothers life is threatened by the pregnancy, the Burris Amendment is different. From Media Matters,

Contrary to Burke’s assertion, the Burris amendment removes the section of Title 10 of the U.S. Code that states, “No medical treatment facility or other facility of the Department of Defense may be used to perform an abortion except where the life of the mother would be endangered if the fetus were carried to term or in a case in which the pregnancy is the result of an act of rape or incest.” But it maintains the following section:

Funds available to the Department of Defense may not be used to perform abortions except where the life of the mother would be endangered if the fetus were carried to term. 

According to SharonMD on Rewire, when the Hyde Amendment took effect, since servicewomen on military bases (especially in foreign countries) were not even able to access abortion using their own funds, many women did (and still do) turn to “DIY” abortions or unsafe care,

A 26-year-old marine detailed her experience of attempting to provoke an abortion on her own while serving in Iraq on the online magazine, Religion Dispatches:

You hear these legends of coat-hanger abortions…but there are no coat hangers in Iraq. I looked.

In 2002, retired Lieutenant General Claudia Kennedy bravely published a letter in support of access to privately funded abortions at US military bases.  She had seen her colleagues undergo traumatic experiences merely to access the same care all American women have the right to receive.  She recounts the experience of a young woman serving in Germany who had to venture off base to obtain a safe abortion:

The experience had been both mortifying and painful….no pain killer of any sort was administered for the procedure; the modesty of this soldier and the other women at the clinic had been violated (due to different cultural expectations about nudity); and neither she nor the soldier understood German, and the instructions were given in almost unintelligible English.

This is not the end of any of these measures, of course. Democrats will continue fighting for passage of a repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell; for the DREAM Act; and the Burris Amendment. All three of these measures have traveled long and bumpy roads, with no sign of dying on the vine, however. This latest blockade, on the part of the Republicans, makes things more difficult. And what many had thought would be a done deal – repeal of DADT – is now turning into yet another leg of a long journey. If Democrats do not manage to keep a majority in Congress, this fight is far from over.