For Women in the Military, Choice is Complicated

A new paper released by Ibis Reproductive Health highlights that U.S. servicewomen—who have higher rates of unintended pregnancy than civilian women—do not have adequate access to abortion services and related care.

Creative Commons / The National Guard

Due to the hyper-stigmatized nature of abortion in the military, the Ibis report is one of the first of its kind. As Kate Grandlay, Senior Project Manager at Ibis, told Ms., “little is known about servicewomen’s experiences when they face an unintended pregnancy.” Thus, she continues, “the purpose of this study was to better understand servicewomen’s experiences with unplanned pregnancy and abortion.”

The comprehensive study centers on the day-to-day lives of women in the military, and in doing so tackles the pernicious gap in our understanding by virtue of courageous truth-telling. The servicewomen explain the impact of the current federal law that permits the U.S. military from providing and covering abortion, except in limited cases such as life endangerment or rape. This leaves U.S. servicewomen—who make up 15 percent of active-duty military forces and 19 percent of reserve forces—feeling abandoned and uninformed in navigating the path toward a safe, supported abortion.

For many servicewomen, pregnancy is a harrowing catch-22, whereby both carrying a child to term and seeking an abortion can stifle and even jeopardize her career. Concerns related to career—including professional goals, upcoming deployment, stations away from social support and leaving units understaffed—were some of the strongest commonalities reported in the study. One woman expressed that she “wanted to remain competitive in the military,” adding that “pregnancy will hold you back like at lease a year and a half, two years.” Additional concerns were tied to the logistics of life in the military: Many women communicated that living in barracks, coupled with long and inflexible work schedules, would make raising a child challenging.

But the alternative to carrying out a pregnancy is hardly an easy choice—abortions are heavily stigmatized in military communities, and issues of confidentiality are both products of and contributors to a servicewomen’s limited reproductive autonomy and professional precarity. “It has been my experience with friends that they’ve had negative repercussions…for seeking help [for an abortion] through the military,” one Air Force service member explained. “I have seen people not necessarily get kicked out, but I have seen their careers affected by [abortion].”

Trying to conceal an abortion—or steps revolving around an abortion—is not easy work either. Pregnancy tests in military treatment facilities are codified in paperwork that is automatically sent to a woman’s chain of command. In a similar vein, while some women of higher rank are able to leave work without a request for time off, other women must put in formal requests and thus disclose their abortions to their chain of command. Several interviewed women expressed concern that using insurance would leave a trace, which led them to pay for their procedures out of pocket; a handful of women reported using an entire paycheck to cover the cost of their abortion.

The multitude of barriers that tower between a servicewomen and a safe, accessible, unstigmatized abortion are suffocating, to say the least. Women who choose to avoid disclosing such personal information have to face limited options in abortion methods, many of which result in substandard care. An overwhelming majority of the women in the study opted for the minimal follow-up and quick recovery associated with surgical abortions: a logistically pragmatic—albeit more medically risky—option for women who can only seek out treatment on the weekends or while on planned leave.

One army officer, who chose not to disclose her abortion, reported being unable to recover as medically recommended. “I was bleeding, and wasn’t able to…use the restroom whenever I wanted, and I had to wear like tampons and stuff, which I know you’re not supposed to do after,” she said. “I wasn’t able to follow the post instructions as much as I wanted to. And if I would’ve had the option, I definitely would’ve called in [to take time off].”

These health consequences are often compounded by deployment to foreign countries. “We can be stationed all over the world, and … for other places that aren’t up to par with their health care standard,” one woman explained, “you’re putting women in a really dangerous situation where they’re probably not getting the safest health care, they probably don’t have access to the most modern technology, and it’s just putting them in a really bad situation overall.”

Fortunately, several policy recommendations have come out of this research. Designed to better meet the needs of servicewomen, suggestions include disseminating abortion policy information more widely and enacting concrete measures for addressing concerns about privacy and possible negative impacts on careers.

More work needs to be done to ensure that these recommendations are actualized and to further our understanding of the prevalence of and experience revolving around abortion in the military—but one thing we do know for sure is that things must change. The stories collected by Ibis demonstrate how current military policy wreaks unnecessary—and avoidable—havoc on women’s minds, bodies and careers.

“These women’s stories underscore the need for policies for servicewomen,” Grindlay concludes, “that better support them in their decisions around whether and when to parent.”

Jessica Merino is an editorial intern at Ms. Her focus is on women’s health and climate and environmental justice. 

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