Senate Votes to Allow Abortions at Military Hospitals Abroad

The House and Senate are at odds now that the Senate has agreed to let female soldiers use military hospitals abroad to get abortions.

The Senate voted 52-40 to allow women to pay for the procedure themselves, but will have to sort out whether the provision becomes law when negotiators from both chambers meet to reconcile differences in the $393 billion defense bill.

Even if it gets into the final defense bill, it may be rejected by Congress, or the president could veto it.

It's "very harmful, wrong, that we would hold America's armed services hostage to abortion politics," said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan.

Supporters of the measure, however, including Sens. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Patty Murray, D-Wash., co-sponsors of the amendment, say it is unfair to limit the country's overseas female fighting forces from their right to a safe and legal abortion.

"Women who are on the frontline and defending us in this war on terrorism ... are the least protected in terms of the right to make choices," Snowe said.

A ban on military hospitals providing abortions has been in place for seven years. It was first limited in 1979, when Congress prohibited federal funds from being used to pay for abortions. In 1988, former President Reagan included private funding as well. In 1993, former President Clinton lifted the ban, which was re-instituted in 1996.

Exceptions to the ban are made when the life of the mother is endangered, in which case the government will pay for the abortion, and for rape and incest, when the mother can pay for an abortion at a military hospital.

But Murray argued that this still deprives the 100,000 military women and dependents stationed overseas of a basic right enjoyed by women at home.

Currently, military women seeking an abortion must obtain approval from their commanding officer for leave to travel back to the United States, a process that compromises a woman's privacy rights. Abortions are provided in some host countries, but medical training may be limited or language barriers could hinder the ability to get service, Murray said.

Last month, the House rejected a similar amendment to the defense bill for a seventh straight year, by a 215-202 vote. The last Senate vote, in 2000, was 50-49 to keep the ban in place.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.