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(WOMENSENEWS)— Nebraska’s former senator, Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama’s nominee for secretary of defense in second term, has written a letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer expressing his commitment to gay rights and military abortion, the Huffington Post reported Jan. 15.
"I fully support the Don't Ask, Don't Tell Repeal Act of 2010 and value the service of all those who fight for our country," the former Republican senator is quoted at one point.
At another point, Hagel is described as promising Boxer, a California Democrat, that he will fully implement all the policies to combat sexual assault in the military announced by current Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, including female service members’ access to world class reproductive health care.
New Hampshire’s Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, meanwhile, has shown little resistance so far to the nominee, despite his past votes opposing abortions in military hospitals.
“Throughout his career Senator Chuck Hagel has proven to be a strong and independent leader,” Shaheen said in a brief statement last week. “He valiantly defended our nation in Vietnam where he earned two Purple Hearts and in the Senate served as a voice of pragmatism and principle. I look forward to speaking with Senator Hagel and considering his nomination.”
The respectful--if slightly guarded--statement has stirred media speculation that Shaheen expects Hagel to carry out Obama’s brand new policy on military abortion that she authored.
Obama signed the Shaheen Amendment into law on Jan. 2 as part of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act. The amendment says servicewomen who are victims of sexual assault and incest are now entitled to affordable abortion coverage.
Since 1981 women serving in the military were excluded from the abortion-coverage benefits available to civilian employees from their government issued insurance plans.
Under the previous military policy, abortion for servicewomen was only covered by the military’s health care program if their lives were in danger. No provision was made for rape or incest.
Shaheen hailed passage of the law on Jan 3: “After three decades of a policy that discriminated against women who put their lives on the line for us, I am so proud that we will finally begin to provide the coverage our servicewomen deserve.”
Shaheen renewed her pressure to include abortion coverage for military women in July, Politico.com reported. A bipartisan committee of House and Senate members approved the amendment, The Huffington Post reported during this latest push in early December.
Approximately 17 percent of women in the general population are sexually assaulted in their lifetime, but for servicewomen in active duty that figure is a much higher 33 percent, according to March 2012 article in the New York Times. More than 214,00 women serve in the military and in the past those who suffered sexual assault--in particular those posted overseas—were compelled to use what Shaheen representatives have described as “unsafe and unacceptable alternatives.”
Public awareness of the magnitude of military sexual assault was stirred by the investigative 2012 documentary “The Invisible War,” directed by Oscar and Emmy-nominated director, Kirby Dick. The film focuses on harrowing abuse stories of several young servicewomen and how such ordeals have been concealed.
Victoria Fitzgerald is a freelance writer in New York City.