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From Draft NOtices, July-September 2007

Reproductive Rights and the Military: What Choice?

—Michelle Gutiérrez

The Christian right’s move to erode the landmark decision in Roe v. Wade as generated critique and fear by many. The 1973 Supreme Court decision gave women the right to terminate pregnancy in the pre-viable state by banning state laws that prohibited abortion. Since then, stipulations on abortion have been made on the state level, but generally Roe v. Wade has made tangible improvements in women’s reproductive choices and safety nationwide. Back alley abortions seemed to be a thing of the past. But, with the composition of the Supreme Court changing and a resurgence of “pro-life” advocacy, a ban on late-term abortion has passed and many states are debating the circumstances in which minors can have access to an abortion. Many women indeed fear that we’re heading back to the days when women’s reproductive choices will include a coat hanger and going to an unsafe abortion facility. But, if we are alarmed by the encroachment on women’s reproductive rights, we should pause and think about a population of Americans who have not been able to benefit from the Roe v. Wade decision at all. For women associated with the military, either as spouses or soldiers, there aren’t many reproductive choices to erode.

Women in most societies contend with gender inequality and inequality based on sex and sexuality, but for women in the military, much of this is experienced ten-fold. While there is sexism in civilian society, for female soldiers there is a greater threat of harassment and rape. Furthermore, if abused, women must make their way through hierarchies and bureaucracy that can make reporting abuses sometimes futile or even detrimental to one’s career and even safety.  The “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy makes things even more difficult for both straight women and lesbians in the military, since accusations of being lesbian are sometimes used as leverage for men who make unwanted sexual advances on women. For civilian women married to men in the military, there are other challenges: the constant moves, raising families alone, fear, worry, limited time to establish one’s own career, loneliness and isolation. And of course, there is greater incidence of family violence and abuse. Put simply, women associated with the military have it hard, even harder than women in civilian society.

This is evident when it comes to reproductive health issues in the military medical care system, which is the second largest in the U.S. Currently, there are hundreds of thousands of women living overseas who are either in the military or married to military members, yet current law prohibits the military hospitals serving them from performing abortion on women except in the case of rape, incest, or a life-threatening circumstance. Even still, the government only funds abortions that are performed in case of a life-threatening medical emergency.

The lack of access to abortion overseas sometimes forces women to pay for an expensive trip to the U.S. or seek back alley abortions, which could have severe health consequences for women. Since private aspects of one’s life are made public when reporting sexual abuse in the military, a woman seeking an abortion due to an assault would have to make her case public. Furthermore, while it was ruled unconstitutional to force women to get spousal consent before having an abortion, this right is more difficult to exercise for women overseas, since they have to travel stateside to have an abortion or have a privately funded one outside of a military hospital.

One woman’s experience with seeking an abortion in a military hospital is reported on the National Abortion Federation (NAF) website. Jessica West served in the Air Force in Japan when she discovered she was pregnant. In her words:

I will never forget the humiliation I felt. . . .I was turned away by my American doctors on base who wanted to educate me on the issue but couldn't do so legally. . . . Although I serve in the military, I was given no translators, no explanations, no transportation and no help for a legal medical procedure. . . . The military expects nothing but the best from its soldiers and I expect the best medical care in return.

While abortion is a debatable issue, women who are supposedly “fighting for freedom” should have the same rights that are extended to women domestically. With greater incidence of rape and sexual violence for military women, they should have more options if they become pregnant. According to the Pentagon, there were 3,000 reports of sexual assault in 2006, a 24 percent increase since 2005. The NAF notes that most cases of sexual assault occur with lower-ranking military service members, for whom funding private abortion is more difficult. Furthermore, if a woman is in a domestic violence relationship, her ability to leave is often worsened if children become involved. Having children and pregnancy ties women to their abusers due to financial burdens and also the emotional and familial connections that come from pregnancy.

So what’s the answer?  One possible answer is to increase other options for women including the morning after pill (Plan B). But, after the approval of Plan B by the FDA in July of 1999, military hospitals were not forced to carry this for military service women. The answers to the issues of reproductive health for military personnel or military spouses should come from legislation. The House is considering a bill introduced by Rep. Mike Michaud (D-ME) that would amend the Department of Defense Authorization Bill to add Plan B to the military’s “basic core formula” of health care. Also, an amendment was introduced by Representatives Susan Davis (D-CA) and Jane Harman (D-CA) that would have removed the ban on privately funded abortions preformed in overseas hospitals. This amendment was defeated on May 10th by a vote of 191-237. Another bill, the Shays–Maloney amendment, would have extended abortion coverage to include cases of incest and rape but was not allowed a floor vote.

Policies on reproductive choice and safety for women associated with the military are heading in a direction away from choice and safety. As we think about the issue stateside, we should pause to think about the women who have yet to see the benefits of Roe v. Wade and who face even greater obstacles due to what life is like for women associated with the military.

Information sources: Karen Houppert. Home Fires Burning: Married to the Military- For Better or Worse; National Abortion Federation Website,; Population Connection: Education and Action for a Better World Website,

This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (


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