Military Women’s Reproductive Rights Under Seige

The Pentagon has long kept service women under the grip of draconian restrictions on abortion services.

By Michelle Chen Aug 30, 2010

Of all the threats that U.S. military women face in combat zones, an assault on their reproductive rights should not be one of them. And yet the Pentagon has long kept service women under the grip of draconian restrictions on abortion services. Maggie Crosby of the Northern California ACLU describes the disturbing "options" that military women have when they find themselves facing unwanted pregnancy during their service:

Current federal law prohibits almost all abortion services at U.S. military hospitals, even if a woman pays for the procedure herself. So, like a woman in the 1950s, you can fly to another country to obtain safe, legal abortion care (if you can afford to travel and can arrange leave) or take your chances with an unsafe, illegal, local or self-induced abortion.

The restrictions are more alarming in light of the shocking prevalence of military sexual trauma, which in many cases goes unreported and without redress. In a hierarchical environment where coerced sex is rampant, for the military to restrict access to abortion is essentially forcing women to bear the emotional, physical and social burden of rape. According to the Guttmacher Institute’s analysis of the sexual vulnerability of service women:

U.S. servicewomen stationed in overseas or remote locations may have particular difficulty accessing the services they need and using contraceptives consistently. In the field or on a ship, active duty members may be limited in the choice of health care services and supplies available. Privacy is also a concern: Base camp clinics, for example, are very small and may lack interior walls and doors, and women may be concerned that their medical issues will not be kept confidential…. Between 9.5% and 33% of women report experiencing an attempted or completed rape while serving in the military. If sexual harassment and other forms of sexual assault are included, the rates reported during military service by women range from 22% to 84%.

As we’ve reported before, female service members are disproportionately women of color. Though precise statistics aren’t available, it’s likely that constraints on reproductive services would have an especially heavy impact on military women struggling against racial barriers as well. The abortion ban might be eased by pending legislation, reports Crosby:

An amendment to the pending National Defense Authorization bill would repeal the dangerous ban on privately funded abortion care and allow U.S servicewomen to use their own money to obtain abortion services at U.S. military facilities. Congress will likely pass the bill sometime in the fall. Since the House version doesn’t include a repeal of the ban, it’s important to reach out to representatives to urge them to support reproductive health care for our soldiers.

The military was never designed to be a democratic institution, but reproductive justice shouldn’t be too much to demand for the women putting their lives on the line for their country.