California’s Military Women Support Our Freedom. Shouldn’t We Support Theirs?

By Maggie Crosby, Staff Attorney, ACLU of Northern California

Imagine you’re a soldier stationed overseas and discover you’re pregnant. If you want to have an abortion but are living in a country where it’s illegal, you might as well be living in pre-Roe v. Wade America. Why? Current federal law prohibits almost all abortion services at U.S. military hospitals, even if a woman pays for the procedure herself. So, like a woman in the 1950s, you can fly to another country to obtain safe, legal abortion care (if you can afford to travel and can arrange leave) or take your chances with an unsafe, illegal, local or self-induced abortion.

Here in California, we are sending thousands of women into military service and have the highest proportion of female veterans of any state — and these numbers are growing. We have among the strongest laws in the country protecting reproductive rights. But when California servicewomen are shipped out of state or overseas, they are deprived of the fundamental right to make pregnancy decisions.

The ban, which has no exception for pregnancies that jeopardize a woman’s health, poses grave risks for women stationed in countries where abortion is outlawed. Coupled with a tremendously high number of incidents of sexual assault in the military, a disturbing scenario emerges. A new analysis from the Guttmacher Institute documents that "the restrictions fall hardest on the most junior of enlisted ranks, who are also the most likely to have an unintended pregnancy."

This ban on abortion at military facilities hasn’t always been in place. Prior to 1988, military women were allowed to use their own funds to obtain abortions on military bases overseas. Military officials had wisely recognized that at many overseas stations — or even isolated areas in the U.S. — safe and reliable civilian facilities that provide abortion care are not always available.

An amendment to the pending National Defense Authorization bill would repeal the dangerous ban on privately funded abortion care and allow U.S servicewomen to use their own money to obtain abortion services at U.S. military facilities. Congress will likely pass the bill sometime in the fall. Since the House version doesn’t include a repeal of the ban, it’s important to reach out to representatives to urge them to support reproductive health care for our soldiers.

California congresswoman Jane Harman has said that military women are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire in Iraq. Several studies indicate that as many as a third of military women report rape or attempted rape during their military service. Department of Defense research reveals 3,230 reported sexual assaults in 2009, up 11 percent from the previous year. Servicewomen and veterans indicate that, due to incredibly low reporting rates, the actual number of sexual assaults of military women is much higher. DOD’s own statistics confirm low reporting rates.

Although the ban on abortion at military facilities includes an exception for rape and incest, it is meaningless when women in the military don’t feel that they can report sexual assault, especially if that assault is by commanders or fellow soldiers.I recently met with a young veteran who told me that when she reported being raped to her commander, his response was "What is it with you women? You’re the third this week."

Journalist Kathryn Joyce reported the story of a 26-year-old Marine named Amy* who was stationed in Fallujah when she realized she was pregnant as a result of rape. Amy didn’t report the rape, fearing backlash from her male comrades. The abortion ban meant there was no other way to end her pregnancy. She attempted to self-abort using a cleaning rod from her rifle.

Lifting the ban would return the Department of Defense to the policy that existed for many years: women soldiers facing unintended pregnancies could obtain safe abortion care from doctors willing to provide it. It’s such a cruel irony that America’s young women who volunteer to protect our constitutional rights are denied theirs.

Congress should act now to end the ban on private funding of abortion at military facilities. Our Armed Services women deserve more from their country.

*pseudonym

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