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WASHINGTON — A Senate provision to allow abortions at overseas military bases could set up an election year fight between abortion rights supporters and conservative lawmakers who have thwarted the measure for years.

Senate Republicans threatened to block the full defense authorization bill when it comes up for a vote later this month after the abortion provision was attached in the chamber’s Armed Services Committee mark-up.

Under the amendment, female servicemembers and military dependents stationed overseas would have access to abortions, provided they pay for the procedure themselves and medical personnel on base are willing to perform it. No military doctors would be required to perform abortions if they object to the practice.

In a statement, amendment sponsor Sen. Roland Burris, D-Ill., framed the issue as one of basic fairness for the tens of thousands of female troops and family members stationed outside the United States.

“It is critical that we provide the highest quality care for our service members while they are serving our nation overseas, and that includes allowing women and their families the right to choose at facilities operated under the Department of Defense,” he said.

Under current law, physicians at overseas bases can perform abortions only when the mother’s life is in danger, or in cases of rape or incest. In the latter two, women still must pay for the procedure themselves.

In recent years, similar proposals to allow overseas abortions have been offered in the House and Senate as part of the annual budget bills, but failed before they could become law. The issue was not broached in the House this year, and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., restated his public opposition to a change in the policy.

The American Civil Liberties Union and NARAL Pro-Choice America both backed Burris’ plan. In a statement earlier this month, Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., called the abortion amendment “a moral failure of this Congress” and promised to fight to remove the provision.

“Since the mid-1990s, attempts to change this law have been rejected repeatedly,” he said. “Regardless of their views on whether abortion is ever justified, the vast majority of Americans agree that taxpayer dollars should not subsidize such controversial procedures.”

Both the House and Senate versions of the defense authorization bill already include repeal language for the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” law, a controversial move that Republicans in both chambers predicted could jeopardize passage of the final bill. Twenty-six House Democrats voted against the “don’t ask, don’t tell” provision, but the full measure passed by a 229-186 margin.

The Senate is expected to vote later this month on the authorization bill, which includes the abortion provision, and a conference committee will work on differences between the House and Senate versions throughout the summer.


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