This is the third part of a five-part series, published in partnership with Physicians for Reproductive Health, exploring how the Hyde Amendment negatively affects different populations in the United States.
Since the Peace Corps’ establishment in 1961, more than 220,000 Americans have volunteered two years of their lives to serve as goodwill ambassadors around the world. They teach in schools, improve public health, support sustainable agricultural models, and promote economic development in some of the world’s most rural and developing communities. The majority of volunteers are women, single, and of reproductive age.
As OB-GYNs and family planning specialists interested in global women’s reproductive health, we admire the mission and work of the Peace Corps. However, the same U.S. women who devote their energy and passion to the Peace Corps are denied the full range of reproductive health options, specifically safe abortion care, due to the Hyde Amendment. The Hyde Amendment bars the use of federal funds, like those used to support Peace Corps members, to pay for abortion with the exceptions of rape, incest, or if the life of the pregnant woman is in danger. In order to protect all women’s right to access reproductive choice, we strongly support the timely repeal of the Hyde Amendment.
We have seen firsthand how critically important fully funded reproductive care is during our international work in a variety of countries. Specifically, I (Jamie) spent a two-year Peace Corps tour in Malawi as a high school teacher. I saw my female students struggle with a variety of reproductive health issues, including expulsion from school after becoming pregnant and having difficulty accessing care for sexually transmitted diseases.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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But the most upsetting health issues were complications from illegal abortion. In Malawi, abortion is allowed only to save the woman’s life. Due to this policy, clandestine abortions are common, and so are abortion-related complications and fatalities. One hospital in southern Malawi reported that almost a quarter of maternal deaths during 1999 and 2000 were a result of such abortions.
I witnessed the toll of Malawi’s abortion restrictions. Once, my homestay mother took me to visit a woman who lay on a grass mat, feverish from a horrible infection after an unsafe abortion. Another one of my students missed a year of school after becoming ill from herbs her grandmother gave her to end her pregnancy. I saw why safe abortion care matters and felt the injustice of these women’s suffering.
But, ironically, the organization that inspired me to specialize in family planning would not have been able to provide me with abortion care had I needed it during my service due to the Hyde Amendment.
In 2014, Congress finally allowed women serving in the Peace Corps to receive similar coverage for abortion as federal employees and military members (only in the case of life endangerment, rape, or incest). This leaves no coverage for abortion in all other instances such as contraceptive failure or lethal fetal anomalies. All OB-GYNs have seen women like this in our offices, and we personally have seen more than we can count during our time working in Cambodia, Ethiopia, India, Malawi, Niger, and other lower-resource nations.
A Peace Corps volunteer who faces an unplanned pregnancy and decides to proceed with abortion must then be medically evacuated to the United States and pay for the procedure out-of-pocket. That would cost her about a month’s wages. Or, if she is unable to bear the costs or leave the country, she may consider the potentially limited and unsafe options where she’s stationed.
Abortion care should not just be for the wealthy—in the United States or abroad. Struggling to afford an abortion is not a choice anyone should have to make, and our Peace Corps volunteers deserve better.
The World Health Organization and other international nongovernmental organizations are actively working to improve access to quality abortion care for women in rural and developing regions. They know, as we do, that abortion is safe, especially when compared with pregnancy.
The Peace Corps’ mission “to promote world peace and friendship” should receive continued enthusiastic support. But this also means the volunteers we send to represent our country should be completely supported by giving them the option to access all reproductive health options, including safe abortion care.