Doing a disservice to women who serve

They are denied the array of reproductive health care options civilians take for granted

January 22, 2010|By Lawrence J. Korb and Jessica Arons

Today, on its 37th anniversary, Roe v. Wade is still an unfulfilled promise for the women in our military. Women soldiers serving their country overseas and in the United States face impediments to accessing reproductive health care that most civilians take for granted. While military personnel must give up some rights enjoyed by civilians, there is no compelling reason for the current policies and practices that circumscribe their reproductive rights.

In November, Major Gen. Anthony Cuculo III, the commander of U.S. forces in Northern Iraq, put in place a policy that made pregnancy or impregnation an offense subject to a court-martial or jail time, citing military readiness as his justification. Fortunately, the policy was rescinded the next month after widespread criticism, but it points to a larger problem of an institution that is still too reluctant and slow to adapt to the needs of female soldiers.

General Cuculo is not the first military leader to attempt to curtail the reproductive rights of military women, but he needs to be the last. Such rules are not only ethically and constitutionally suspect, but they also completely ignore the circumstances in which women serve. Moreover, such rules are actually counterproductive to military effectiveness.

Because of the influence of the anti-abortion lobby, the morning-after pill - which can prevent pregnancy after sex but does not cause abortion - is not routinely stocked at our bases overseas. This is especially critical since military personnel rarely, if ever, have access to local pharmacies in war zones, assuming the medicine is even available there.

In addition, because of congressional actions dating back to 1979, federal funds cannot be used to pay for abortions for military personnel in cases where the mother's life is not at risk. And regardless of the funding source, abortions cannot be performed in military hospitals at home or abroad, except in cases of rape, incest or threat to the life of the woman.

This means a servicewoman must pay for an abortion out of pocket in an off-base facility, which presents challenges of affordability, distance and obtaining leave if stationed in the United States, as well as burdens of safety and legality in many countries overseas. These practical obstacles are compounded by a lack of privacy and a reasonable fear of retaliation by disapproving supervisors and peers.

These policies continue in the context of the well-documented prevalence of sexual harassment and assault in the military. In fiscal year 2008, there were approximately 3,000 reported cases of sexual abuse against women, and 15 percent of the women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan have experienced sexual trauma during their deployment. These numbers represent only a fraction of the actual instances, since women know that filing a report can negatively affect their career.

A ban on pregnancy in the military would only exacerbate what is already a no-win situation. Subjected to sexual harassment and assault and limited in their ability to prevent pregnancy, female troops would face added pressure to have an abortion but be given no real options for obtaining one, increasing the cases of illegal, unsafe, and/or self-induced abortion that put their health and lives at risk. Moreover, regardless of whether a pregnancy resulted from consensual or coerced sex, a pregnancy ban is much easier and more likely to be enforced against women than men, despite the latest rule's attempt at gender neutrality.

Current policy already requires a pregnant woman to be removed from a war zone within two weeks of discovery of the pregnancy. Add the specter of imprisonment or court-martial, and a woman who chose to carry to term would face punishment despite the many ways she could continue to serve the military, while a woman who tried to end the pregnancy covertly could cause herself permanent physical and psychological damage. Given that women compose 15 percent of the military, such a policy flatly undermines military readiness.

Providing full reproductive health services, including but not limited to abortion and contraception, on our military bases would at least ensure that our soldiers have every opportunity to prevent unintended pregnancy, access to a safe and timely abortion when needed, and appropriate medical and counseling services to ensure soldiers are mentally and physically fit to serve. The Compassionate Care for Servicewomen Act, reintroduced last week in the U.S. Senate by Al Franken, Democrat of Minnesota, and Olympia Snowe, Republican of Maine, would help by guaranteeing access to emergency contraception on all military bases.

General Cucolo said the "message to my female soldiers is 'they are absolutely invaluable.'" With help from Congress, he and the military may be able to find a better way to show servicewomen how valued they are.

Lawrence J. Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. His e-mail is lkorb@americanprogress.org. Jessica Arons is director of the center's Women's Health and Rights Program. Her e-mail is jarons@americanprogress.org.

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