In a move praised by both sides of the abortion issue, the Naval Academy has decided to grant a one-year leave of absence to midshipmen who become pregnant or are responsible for a pregnancy.
The policy replaces one that made pregnancy grounds for expulsion and is in sharp contrast to a proposal last spring that would have allowed a pregnant midshipman to remain at the academy only if she terminated the pregnancy within 30 days.
"We want to make sure [midshipmen] have the ability and time to make a thoughtful and well-informed decision," said Capt. Tom Jurkowsky, an academy spokesman. "We don't want to influence a decision that they may later regret."
The old policy was strongly criticized last spring by activists on both sides of the abortion issue, who said it coerced women into abortions. But both sides yesterday expressed satisfaction with the academy's decision.
"Bravo to [superintendent] Adm. Charles Larson for rejecting the Naval Academy's policy of dismissing pregnant women," said Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. "Policies that force women to have abortions they do not want are just as wrong as policies that deny women access to abortion services they may need."
Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life group, praised the policy, but said the real test will come after it has been applied to several cases.
"We think this is a very good change," he said. "The leave of absence will reduce the pressure to have an abortion. We hope that any midshipman would choose life for the baby."
Under the new rule that applies to women as well as men, midshipmen who take the leave of absence must reapply to the academy within the year and provide proof to the Academic Review Board that they are not legally responsible for the child, Captain Jurkowsky said. Midshipmen are forbidden by Navy policy to have dependents.
The seven-member board that also reviews cases for academic dismissal, would determine if the midshipman would be allowed to return to classes, the captain said.
Another provision in the policy allows pregnant midshipmen to get religious and psychological counseling before leaving the academy and they would be allowed to get medical treatment at a military facility during the year's leave, Captain Jurkowsky said. Any midshipman who is pregnant or has a dependent and does not resign or volunteer for a leave of absence will be dismissed under the policy.
One female midshipman has been granted a leave under the new policy, Captain Jurkowsky said.
Admiral Larson took over as academy superintendent last August and assigned a group of midshipmen and officers to review the policy and develop alternatives that would be in keeping with the academy's mission of developing Navy leaders.