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State Dept. employees posted overseas call for equal access to reproductive services

The diplomats said they are “routinely denied access” to such care and have had difficulty obtaining family planning services, rape kits, emergency contraceptives and abortion pills.
Demonstrations at Supreme Court over Roe v. Wade
Demonstrators cheer during a rally last week at the Supreme Court. Allison Bailey / Associated Press

WASHINGTON — More than 200 American foreign service officers are calling on the Biden administration to ensure that they have access to reproductive health services in the countries where they serve.

In a letter to State Department leadership in December, which was not released publicly until last week, the diplomats said that they have encountered obstacles to getting reproductive health care in their host countries.

"All diplomats, and their family members, deserve the same access to timely, life-saving health care overseas as domestically, and when that is not possible for any reason — including host country law — to be afforded prompt medical evacuation to such care," they wrote in the letter to Carol Z. Perez, the director general of the Foreign Service.

The diplomats said they are "routinely denied access" to such care and have experienced difficulty obtaining family planning services, rape kits, emergency contraceptives and abortion pills.

"We deserve access to the same rights we have in our own country when we serve overseas and demand that reproductive rights be guaranteed in the Foreign Affairs Manual," they said.

The letter said American diplomats based in Asia, Africa, Europe and South America who experienced reproductive health emergencies were instructed to resort to using local options available to them on their own.

"Some nearly died, many had long-lasting injuries, while others took on serious financial burdens to access the necessary and lifesaving care," they said. "The experience of these diplomats today mirrors the traumatizing experiences of American women decades ago when these rights were inaccessible in our country too."

One woman who signed the letter, Andrea Capellan, a foreign service officer with the U.S. Agency for International Development, recently published commentary in the latest edition of The Foreign Service Journal calling on the department to take action to address the concerns raised in the letter.

The release of the letter comes a week after the leak of a Supreme Court draft opinion suggesting that court may have a majority of justices to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling.

A State Department spokesperson told NBC News it is “committed to providing compassionate, personalized, professional, and proactive care to our employees and their family members. The letter highlighted some instances where patient expectations were not met.”

In response to the concerns raised in the letter, “we took concrete steps to improve our services,” the spokesperson said, adding: “The department is grateful to those officers for their willingness and courage to share their very personal experiences.”  

State Department policies ensure that emergency contraceptives and rape kits are available at every medical office, and that each medical unit maintains a regularly updated list of vetted local medical providers and services, including obstetrics and gynecological specialists, the spokesperson said. 

The State Department, however, could not guarantee the same access to medical services that are available in some parts of the United States, the spokesperson said. 

“Like all federal agencies, the department must comply with the Hyde Amendment," the spokesperson added. "This law prohibits the use of federal funds to pay for abortions or for health benefits that cover abortions, except to save the life of the woman or if the pregnancy arises from incest or rape. As such, the Department is not able to facilitate abortion services."