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Editorial: Finally, fairness for military women

Amid the tiresome fiscal cliff drama, it’s pretty easy to believe that Congress is incapable of getting out of its own way. But last week – without theatrics or grandstanding – both the House and Senate approved a measure sponsored by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen that will inject common sense and long-sought justice into the U.S. armed services.

At issue was a policy in place since 1981 that denied women in the military health insurance coverage for abortion in the cases of rape or incest. Shaheen’s amendment, included in the National Defense Authorization Act, will repeal that rule.

The measure means that women in the military – more than 214,000 are serving in active duty – will be treated just like all other female federal employees. And it means that women serving their country who are sexually assaulted will now have access to safe options in case of pregnancy. The only mystery here is how such a discriminatory and backward policy remained in place for three decades.

This is no symbolic issue. Sexual assault on military women is a real and widespread problem. More than 3,000 cases were reported in 2011, but Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says the actual figures could be as high as 19,000. The Veterans Administration reports that 20 percent of women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan experienced some form of sexual assault or related trauma. The Defense Department says one in three women in the military has been sexually assaulted.

There remains work to be done. The government still bars military women from using their own money for abortion services in situations beyond sexual assault at overseas military hospitals. This is a nonsensical and dangerous rule that should also be overturned.

In the meantime, the Shaheen amendment, part of the larger defense bill, is on its way to President Obama for his signature. When he signs, voters in New Hampshire can take some satisfaction in the fact that their senator is actually getting important work done.

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