Burris Amendment Seeks to (Finally) Expand Abortion Rights for Servicewomen

By Norma Nyhoff, Field Intern

On May 27, the Senate Armed Service Committee approved an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would repeal the prohibition on female service members obtaining abortions at military medical facilities using their own funds. The amendment, introduced by Senator Roland Burris (D-Ill.), is a revolutionary step toward ensuring abortion rights and equal medical access for servicewomen, and should the military appropriations bill pass with the amendment intact, a step toward fighting the unfair and discriminatory abortion restrictions placed on all U.S. women.

Currently, according to a code that has been a part of TRICARE (the military health plan) since 1996, U.S. servicewomen are prohibited from using military medical facilities to obtain an abortion unless the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest or is life-threatening. Adding insult to injury, servicewomen seeking abortion care that fits within these narrow parameters must take leave, report the reason for their leave to a superior, pay for the abortion out of pocket and potentially face stigma from their fellow soldiers, the denial of promotions, or military discharge as a result. Current TRICARE restrictions force service women seeking abortion care to violate their privacy and potentially destroy their military careers.

An abortion for any pregnancy that falls outside of TRICARE’s narrow parameters necessitates that servicewomen independently seek and fund services off-base, which may be impossible or nearly so if they are stationed in a country where abortion is illegal, caught in a conflict zone or low on money. If they are unable to obtain an abortion off-base where they are stationed, servicewomen are forced to fly home to obtain abortion care, risking their financial security, their careers and the respect of their colleagues in the armed forces. Women in the military, who already face enormous hardships over the course of their service, are disgracefully restricted in their access to abortion care even more than the typical U.S. woman.

The Burris Amendment is by no means perfect, as it maintains restrictions on government funding for abortion and allegedly contains a conscience clause which allows individual doctors to deny service, but it would force the military to allow its servicewomen to obtain self-funded abortion care in its medical facilities — a step toward reaffirming and expanding servicewomen’s rights and the rights of U.S. women as a whole.

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