Female Service Members Need Easier Access to Abortion, Not a Wider Range of Birth Control

27 May 2015, 0016 EDT

Pregnancy has consistently been treated by the US military as a costly inconvenience, and proof of women’s weak, unreliable and unpredictable bodies. In particular, there are concerns about the exceptionally high rates of unplanned pregnancies amongst service members, and the logistics and costs associated with such pregnancies (research indicated service women may be 50% more likely to have an unplanned pregnancy). In an attempt to address these issues, the current defense policy bill that was passed by the House on Friday includes a provision that would force military clinics and hospitals to carry the full array of contraception methods approved by the Food and Drug Administration.  Regardless of whether the bill passes (it’s not looking good), this birth control provision misses the mark when it comes to addressing pregnancy- and unplanned pregnancy in particular- within the US forces. The elephant in the room in this conversation is the way in which service women’s access to abortion has been whittled away over the past years- to the point at which even those women who are pregnant as a result of rape have difficulty attaining an abortion at a military facility.

But first, let’s get through some facts about military pregnancies.

1. Pregnancy Cost: According to the April 2012 issue of Medical Surveillance Monthly Report (MSMR), among all U.S. service members more than 13% of total bed days, and about 5% of total lost work days, were pregnancy and delivery-related. Pregnancy also contributes to service interruption or even dropout. This is because women who fall pregnant while at home cannot be deployed, and women who become pregnant while overseas are often sent home (which can cost the military around $10,000).By far, the largest reason for female attrition is pregnancy, accounting for 25% to 50% of women who fail to complete enlistment contracts. According to research, the number one reason for women leaving their positions within the US armed services has been pregnancy for at least the last three decades. It is important to note that research and interviews have indicated that these costs and the lost time is not higher than other forms of absenteeism or disciplinary issues, including drug and alcohol rehab. James Hogg, a retired admiral noted that “pregnancy is a wash” when compared to other types of costs and absenteeism.

2. Unplanned Pregnancies: Second, service women face exponentially higher rates of unplanned pregnancies than civilian women. Women in the military are a staggering 50% more likely to become pregnant unexpectedly. This same CNN report found that In 2008, nearly 11% of more than 7,000 active-duty women surveyed by the Department of Defense reported an unplanned pregnancy. A recent focus on the US Navy found that two of every three Sailors pregnant are unplanned. It also found that approximately 40% of sexually active Sailors used no contraception. So what gives? Are service members simply not using protection responsibly? Would access to more types of birth control change these rates (servicewomen and men already have free access to contraception, including emergency contraception).

A piece of the puzzle that has not been addressed is abortion. About 43% of unplanned pregnancies end in abortion, according to recent research. But service women do not have ready access to abortions. Until 2013 women serving in the US military were not allowed to use their government issued health care to attain an abortion, even if they were raped. Now, federal laws stipulate that abortion can only be covered at a military facility in PROVEN cases of rape or incest, or when pregnancy threatens the life of the woman. This is the result of years of Congressional efforts to whittle women’s access to abortion on bases. In the 1970s, approximately 26,000 female service members and wives of service members attained abortions within military hospitals , but in 2012, only four abortions were performed within military hospitals. Certainly the fact that 37% of female veterans reported experiencing rape must be included in this analysis. While it is impossible to correlate unplanned pregnancy with rape or lack of abortion- and a bill providing for greater access to abortion for service women is about as likely as the provision for a new national light rail-  these topics must be considered as key elements of the ‘pregnancy and the military’ debates.