Dobbs’ Effect on Military Women: ‘Our Fighting Force Is Hindered and Our Security Is at Risk’

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U.S. Army soldiers on Nov. 10, 2009, in Fort Hood, Texas. Up to 7,400 active-duty service women and military-employed civilian women who seek abortion services each year are stationed in states with abortion bans. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

Thousands of active duty and civilian women in the U.S. military need abortion healthcare each year. After the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision this summer, many now live in states banning abortion. Increased obstacles to accessing abortion not only harm the health and careers of military women stationed in these states, but also threatens national security, according to military experts.

“Let’s be clear: Women who are active-duty service members do not get to choose what state they live in, which means they could lose abortion access at the whim of any state with an abortion ban,” said Ashley Ehasz, a West Point grad and former Apache helicopter pilot. “Now that women in uniform have lost their reproductive rights, our country’s fighting force is hindered and our security is at risk.”

Women, who now compose 17.2 percent of active-duty military and one-third of the civilian military workforce, are foundational for the effective functioning of the military. 

Forty percent of active-duty service women in the U.S. are stationed in states with abortion bans, as are 43 percent of civilian women working in the military.

Thirteen states now ban abortion at all stages of pregnancy, with narrow exceptions, and more have banned abortion as early as six weeks. Many of these states have military bases.

Texas, which bans abortion at fertilization, has 59 military bases. Georgia, which bans abortion at six weeks, has 29 bases. Florida, which bans abortion at 15 weeks, has 56 bases.

The number of active military personnel and bases in states with abortion bans.

A recent study by the RAND Army Research Division estimates that between 5,000 and 7,400 active-duty service women and military-employed civilian women who seek abortion services each year are stationed in states with abortion bans. The burden of having to travel out of states to access abortion healthcare will result in lost work time, reduced health and increased stress for military personnel, concludes the study’s authors.

Women who are active-duty service members do not get to choose what state they live in, which means they could lose abortion access at the whim of any state with an abortion ban.

Ashley Ehasz, West Point grad and former Apache helicopter pilot

“Women in the military are more likely to experience an unintended pregnancymiscarriage or ectopic pregnancy than their civilian counterparts,” said Dr. Kyleanne Hunter, a Marine Corps combat veteran and a co-author of the RAND study.

“Additionally, women in the military are more likely to be sexually assaulted and victims of intimate partner violence than their civilian counterparts, factors that increase the risk of unintended pregnancy. Restricting access to abortion may therefore have an outsized effect on women in the military.”

The RAND study notes that women who cannot overcome these obstacles to access abortion are “forced to carry their pregnancies to term in a workplace where pregnancy is perceived to be stigmatized, childcare is difficult to obtain and having a child at the wrong time could have serious implications for career trajectories.” For example, pregnant women are not allowed to deploy.

The RAND study concludes that Dobbs will negatively impact the recruitment and retention of women in the military, compromising military readiness and posing a threat to national security.

The Military Response

Shortly after the Dobbs decision, the Pentagon announced that military hospitals would still provide abortions where federal law allows even in states that ban abortion.

“It is the Department of Justice’s longstanding position that states generally may not impose criminal or civil liability on federal employees who perform their duties in a manner authorized by federal law,” said Undersecretary of Defense Gilbert Cisneros shortly after the Dobbs decision.

The Department of Veteran Affairs (V.A.) recently adopted a similar policy. In response, 15 attorneys general threatened to sue. On Dec. 14, an Army veteran and V.A. nurse based in Texas filed the first lawsuit challenging the policy on religious liberty grounds.

However, due to the Hyde Amendment, military hospitals can only provide abortion when a pregnancy endangers the woman’s life or is the result of rape or incest. As a result, military hospitals have performed only 91 abortions since 2016. Most people will still have to travel out of state to obtain the care they need.

“The practical effects of recent changes are that significant numbers of service members and their families may be forced to travel greater distances, take more time off from work and pay more out-of-pocket expenses to receive reproductive healthcare,” said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

A woman assigned to Fort Hood, a military base in central Texas, would have to travel about 508 miles to the nearest abortion clinic in Wichita, Kan., according to the RAND report. Because of a 24-hour waiting period in Kansas, she would have to spend at least two nights in a hotel. Due to the Hyde Amendment, military health insurance does not cover abortion so they have pay out of pocket for this care. The costs of gas, hotel and the abortion would total over $1,100—which is more than half the monthly pay of $1,800-2,200 before taxes for junior enlisted service members.

To address Dobbs’ threat to military readiness and national security, the Defense Department announced in October that it would cover leave and travel costs for troops seeking abortions not available in the state where they are stationed. Service members will be able to request an “administrative absence” if they need time off, which means that time won’t be taken out of their normal leave, according to a memo released by Austin.

The new policy supports abortion for any reason, not just for the limited reasons of life endangerment, rape and incest covered by the military’s TRICARE health insurance program. The policy also covers other reproductive health services, such as in vitro fertilization, if they are unavailable in the state where the woman lives. The travel benefit is available to service members and their dependents.

In order to protect pregnant women’s privacy, the new guidance will allow them to delay notifying their commanders until 20 weeks’ gestation, versus the current policy requiring them to notify their commanders two weeks after a positive pregnancy test. The new guidance also will prevent military healthcare providers from disclosing a patient’s reproductive healthcare information to commanders, and require commanders to “display objectivity and discretion” in enforcing “existing policies against discrimination and retaliation in the context of reproductive healthcare choices.”

To reduce unintended pregnancy, Austin pledged to conduct a comprehensive contraception education campaign to increase awareness of available reproductive health services, including emergency contraception and intrauterine devices (IUDs).

Austin says these changes will take effect by the end of the year.

Despite these measures to maintain abortion access for service members stationed in states with abortion bans, the time, cost and stress of traveling out of state will no doubt take a tremendous toll not only on women seeking abortion, but on the military itself and national security.

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About

Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. She is a contributing editor at Ms. magazine. You can contact Dr. Baker at cbaker@msmagazine.com or follow her on Twitter @CarrieNBaker.