As Congress resumes, in addition to avoiding a "fiscal cliff" that could throw our economy back into recession, it needs to approve government expenditures for the next fiscal year. Crucial among these is the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act.
The tentatively approved Senate bill contains a key provision that's lacking in the House version, and the difference must be resolved in Conference Committee before the act can be passed by both chambers and signed by the president. That provision is the Shaheen Amendment, stated here in its entirety: "Section 1093(a) of title 10, United States Code, is amended by inserting before the period at the end the following: or in a case in which the pregnancy is the result of an act of rape or incest.'?"
Some historical background will help. Thirty-plus years ago, Congress passed the Hyde Amendment, which forbids the use of federal funds for abortion, "except where the life of the mother would be endangered if the fetus would be carried to term, or the pregnancy is the result of an act of rape or incest." The applicable section of the Defense Act contained only the exception for "endangerment," with none for "rape and incest."
As a result, if a uniformed servicewoman, or wife or daughter, is impregnated through rape (and don't think it's all that rare, for there are thousands of cases of sexual assault annually in the armed services) the servicewoman typically young, modestly paid and junior to her assailant cannot get an abortion at government expense. She must seek civilian medical care just try this somewhere like Afghanistan at her own expense, while justifying her need for emergency leave. This might well require confronting her assailant, often someone under whose authority she must continue serving, plus paying for her own transportation. Such a state of affairs is terribly unjust. It is a bad law that needs fixing.
But it's far worse than unjust. It is ultimately a matter of military readiness. There are nearly 400,000 uniformed women in the armed services, concentrated in such technical fields as intelligence, cyber-communications, security analysis and sophisticated equipment maintenance. Training in these fields can require a year or more before the individual is effective, at a cost often exceeding $100,000. When a servicewoman so expensively trained and experienced reaches the end of her contracted tour (four to six years for the most intricate of these high-tech specialties), she possesses skills greatly in demand by civilian industry. If she, or one of her female colleagues, has been shabbily treated, she can (and will) easily find civilian employment. This situation is going on now, in alarming numbers. It is a national security problem that cries out for solution.
Why would any representative oppose something as sensible as the Shaheen Amendment? After all, it simply grants the rights allowed all other government employees to uniformed servicewomen. The answer, of course, lies in the polarization of American politics, particularly among some who regard any rationalization of current law as a "slippery slope" toward unrestricted abortion. Many conservatives in Congress would be inclined to compromise, but are fearful of being politically attacked from the far right.
One can hope that in this lame-duck session, with campaign pressures eased and re-election two years in the offing, that those who favor the Shaheen Amendment will be able to bring the more reasonable of their conservative colleagues around. After all, most of those colleagues already acknowledge the rationale of the Hyde Amendment, and will recognize that this new measure honors a conservative tradition of strong support for national security.
Col. William L. Hauser, U.S. Army, retired, is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, fellow of the Inter-University Seminar on Armed Forces and Society, and author of a number of works on American civil-military relations.