Abortion Bans Will Affect 80,000 Female Troops and May Push More Out of the Military, Rand Says

People protest the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
People gather in front of the Georgia State Capital in Atlanta on Friday, June 24, 2022, to protest the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. (AP Photo/Ben Gray)

About 80,000 female service members -- 40% of all women on active duty -- now will face no or severely restricted access to abortion services in the U.S., which could increase frustrations over health care and cause more to leave military service, according to Rand Corp.

The think tank released an analysis Wednesday that found women, who are already more likely to separate due to a lack of family planning service and discrimination, may be even less likely to remain in uniform after the Supreme Court in its Dobbs v. Jackson decision in June struck down abortion rights and states have since moved to ban or restrict abortion.

The Pentagon under the Biden administration has vowed that troops will retain access to the health care option, and the Department of Veterans Affairs is preparing to give abortions under limited circumstances for the first time. But troops in Republican-led states across the country will be subject to new anti-abortion laws and may face legal jeopardy if they undergo the procedure.

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"Frustration with family planning in the context of a military career and gender bias and discrimination often are cited as reasons for [female service members'] separation," according to Rand. "It is not unreasonable to expect that both women's propensity to serve and their subsequent retention intentions will decrease as Dobbs adds to and complicates these issues."

The high court's repeal of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that laid the precedent for nearly 50 years of abortion rights, was a landmark event in the heated national debate that has burned on for generations. The full implications of the decision -- widely celebrated by Republicans and abortion opponents -- and its impact on the military are still coming into focus.

For now, it remains unclear how many service members have sought out abortions and what the demand is among military personnel. "Unfortunately, data in this area are limited," Rand said.

As a result of a 1976 law known as the Hyde Amendment, the Defense Department can provide abortions only in cases of rape or incest, or to protect the health of the mother, meaning troops must seek out civilian care. The law could partially explain the lack of clear data.

"For example, there is no single source that tells us how many military service members or DoD civilians have sought abortions as part of their reproductive health care," according to the think tank.

Military.com reported in June that U.S. military hospitals had performed fewer than 100 abortions since 2016 -- though that number does not reflect any elective abortions sought by female service members in civilian facilities. The actual number of abortions is likely much higher.

Beyond causing a problem for female retention, Rand said a lack of abortion access could also increase the number of unintended pregnancies among troops, adding strain to a health system already short on medical personnel who specialize in birth and child care.

"Second, the DoD child care program might need to expand to accommodate any additional births that occur as a result of women having children that they might not have had otherwise," the authors wrote.

Military leaders could blunt some of the impact of abortion bans by increasing access to contraceptives and improving communication with women about policies that govern pregnancy, abortion and their service after giving birth, according to the think tank.

"Both would provide service women and DoD civilians with the resources and information they need to make informed decisions both before and after a pregnancy occurs," the report says.

The future of abortion services remains cloudy for the military as the current Democratic administration scrambles to handle the seismic shift in politics and law. Despite the Pentagon's vow to maintain access, it has yet to hammer out a clear plan.

Several service branches haven't ruled out letting service members transfer locations over state or local laws they feel are discriminatory -- though Army leaders recently said they won't follow suit. The Air Force said it was even mulling where it will station future bases over restrictive abortion laws.

House Democrats recently added protections for troops seeking leave for abortion care into their version of the annual defense spending bill. Meanwhile, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., introduced a bill Tuesday that would ban abortions after 15 weeks at the federal level.

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at konstantin.toropin@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

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