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Abortion Becomes Issue For Military
August 19, 2004

One of President Clinton's first acts after taking office in 1993 was to lift a ban on abortions at U.S. military hospitals, giving servicewomen access to a procedure that had been available to civilians for 20 years.

Two years later, the new Republican-controlled Congress reinstituted the ban, which remains in effect today as scores of soldiers become pregnant on the battlefield.

Now, with lengthy deployments in a military that is 15 percent female and with revelations of sexual assault in the armed forces, critics say it's time for a change.

The exceptions to the abortion ban - first instituted by President Reagan in 1988 - are those to save a woman's life or to end pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. Four such procedures were performed at military facilities in the 2003 fiscal year ending last September, according to the Department of Defense.

Even in cases of rape and incest, military health insurance doesn't cover the procedure, which costs $325 to $650 in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, according to the Planned Parenthood Federation.

Legislators have tried several times to amend the law, most recently in May, when Congress rejected a proposal to permit military facilities to provide abortions on request to patients willing to pay.

Abortion rights activists vow to try again. But in the meantime, they say pregnant soldiers in countries where private clinics don't offer abortions, such as the Middle East and Afghanistan, are caught in a bind.

The military, and many service members themselves, offer many counterarguments, one that says with restrictions on sexual relations in combat zones and with birth control available, deployed soldiers should not get pregnant.

But it's clear that birth control and no-sex rules aren't working.

In Iraq and Kuwait alone, the Army said 163 of its soldiers had become pregnant as of June 17. It did not have numbers for Afghanistan or other areas of deployment.

A 1999 study of Army pregnancies and their effect on military readiness said, on average, from 5 percent to 6 percent of Army women were pregnant at any given time.

The Air Force and Marines said they do not track pregnancies. The Navy did not respond to requests for the information.

Other surgery offered

Defense Department spokesman James Turner said the military is bound by federal law to uphold the abortion ban, and that it is not in the business of providing what it considers elective procedures such as abortions.

That doesn't stop the military from offering service members vasectomies and cosmetic surgery, including liposuction, breast implants and nose jobs.

In the case of cosmetic surgery, at least, that's because such operations are not necessarily elective, Turner said. Rather, they are aimed at keeping military surgeons up to date in reconstructive surgery, a crucial element in treating combat wounds.

Abortions offer no such payoff, said retired Army Sgt. Pauline Keehn, who writes on issues affecting military women and helps run Militarywoman.org, a Web site dedicated to the topic.

Keehn supports abortion rights, but not in the armed forces. She joined the Army in 1971, when abortions were permitted at military hospitals. At first, she supported the idea.

"But as I saw the complications it caused ... I was glad to see the restrictions placed on abortions," she said, noting such things as the need for additional ob-gyns, not generally a high priority in the field.

"There are enough problems already surrounding the issue of pregnancy and its effect on deployment. Add the equation of those who choose abortion, and you have a logistical nightmare waiting to happen."

Beth Eby, an Army warrant officer who was stationed in Baghdad from January through July, e-mailed her parents in Roanoke, Va., in May that some pregnant soldiers in her unit opted to perform abortions on themselves rather than face disciplinary measures.

Women had been warned of "harsh punishment" for becoming pregnant in violation of a no-sex rule, and the Army had even stopped handing out condoms to her unit in the apparent hope it would discourage sexual activities, Eby said in one of a series of e-mails home.

"Anyhow, there's really still no excuse to get pregnant, because the birth control pill is free and you can buy condoms at the PX (commissary) if you have the nerve to do it in front of 50 onlookers," she wrote.

"But accidents happen, and it's not as if you can expect to keep mixed genders together for a year and a half and not have intimate relationships between single men and women."

Rapes raise concern

Abortion rights activists say their biggest concern is women who become pregnant after rape or coerced sex with a senior officer. According to the Department of Defense, there were 1,012 reported sexual assaults of service members in 2003 and 901 in 2002.

The Miles Foundation, which assists servicewomen and female military dependents who have been victims of violence and sexual assault, has handled 187 sexual assault cases involving soldiers stationed in Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan and Bahrain, said Kate Summers, the foundation's director of victim services.

The military's handling of pregnancy and abortion has swung from one extreme to another.

From the 1950s until the early '70s, servicewomen who became pregnant faced expulsion from the military.

When the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade ruling in 1973 overturned state bans on abortions, military facilities began providing the procedure. At that stage, activists say, pregnant soldiers often were pressured to have abortions rather than face discharge for having babies.

The Senate recently approved a defense spending bill for next year that includes a provision to free servicewomen who have been raped from having to pay for their own abortions. It still must pass the Republican-controlled House, which has rejected other attempts to alter the law.

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Copyright 2004 HeraldNet. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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