Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell…and Don’t You Dare Get Pregnant

Female soldiers serving overseas are denied their legal right to choice.

There isn’t a much more intrusive and demanding employer than the United States Military. If you enlist, you give up a great deal of personal freedom and accept the strong likelihood of being placed in harm’s way. In return, you receive many benefits: the honor of serving your country, superb on-the-job training, job security and reportedly the best health care benefits in the country. But it may shock you to learn that service women don’t have the same access to legal reproductive healthcare that their civilian counterparts enjoy.

The trouble began with the passage of the Hyde Amendment in 1976, which ensures that federal money is not used to fund abortions – on military bases, in Planned Parenthood facilities or anyplace else.

Anti-choice politicians and activists have spent a lot of time over the last few months making sure that there’s confusion about how government dollars are used to fund abortions. Here’s the quick answer: they’re not. See Hyde.

Think about what this means for an American service woman overseas.

Female soldiers stationed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and other countries where abortion is illegal have to get special, unpaid leaves of absence and – using their own money – fly to a country where it is legal to get an abortion. Because of Hyde, they can’t get one on base.

Other than cases in which the life or health of the woman is in immediate danger, female soldiers cannot get an abortion – a legal medical procedure in the country they are serving and risking their lives for – on a military base, where they are supposed to receive health care because said health care is government-sponsored. Talk about a Catch-22.

For many years, servicewomen and military wives were able to use their own funds to access abortion care on military facilities overseas. In 1988, an internal Department of Defense memo took away that right. In 1993, President Clinton signed an Executive Order lifting the ban, but then in 1995, an anti-choice Congress passed a law reimposing it. And here we are.

“Abortion is essentially illegal on base and it puts servicewomen into a pre-Roe situation: If you have money, if you know who to ask and if your commander lets you leave the base, you have a choice. If not, you don’t,” says Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, staff attorney at the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project.

On a foreign military base, there’s usually a treaty or agreement with the host country and stipulating rules and regulations apply. Saudi Arabia is the best example. Servicewomen there are allowed to drive on base, but can’t drive in the rest of the country. The same is true with veils, which they must wear if they leave the base.

Given these examples, it would seem that even if abortion is illegal in the host country, U.S. laws would apply on base. But common sense doesn’t apply and the consequences are dire.

“I heard a story about a soldier was stationed in the Philippines. His wife was pregnant and the baby had fatal problems. The closest place to go to terminate the pregnancy was Japan, but they couldn’t afford the trip. She was forced to carry the pregnancy to term,” says Kolbi-Molinas.

People in the military, she explains, do have fewer privacy rights than the rest of us, and you’d need your commander’s permission to leave the base for any reason, including medical procedures. What goes too far is that the facilities ban requires disclosure to the officer, sometimes to the whole unit. There are serious repercussions. Unsurprisingly, a woman leaving active duty to get an abortion isn’t good for a unit’s cohesion, and has shown to be damaging to women’s military careers.

According to the ACLU, more than 365,000 women presently serve in the military. If, while they are deployed, they happen to get pregnant – either because they had consensual sex and the birth control failed or they are raped – they are unable to do anything about it. And rape isn’t a small issue. According to a 2003 study of female veterans, 30 percent were raped or suffered a rape attempt during their military service. Uncle Sam, I’ll do the math: thirty percent of 365,000 is more than 109,000 women.

And abortion isn’t the only reproductive health service that is compromised for active servicewomen. “During the first Gulf War, I heard about a soldier in Kuwait who was having issues with her IUD. None of the doctors she had access to there had a speculum, so they had to use spoons,” says Kolbi-Molinas.

Their lives are on the line for ours, and we can’t do better than spoons?

The first way to protect servicewomen on our bases is to ensure that full reproductive health services are legal, just as they are at home – for now. If the right to choose is compromised or lost in the States, active duty women don’t stand a chance.

On February 18th, the House passed H.R. 3 and voted to cut off all funding to Planned Parenthood. If it passes the Senate we’re all in a lot of trouble. Far more than an abortion provider, Planned Parenthood offers STI testing, HIV testing, cancer screenings and access to birth control to women who couldn’t otherwise afford it.

As Candace Straight, co-chair of the Republican Majority for Choice, wrote: “Beyond the title’s hypocritical and not-so-subtle taxation, H.R. 3 would disadvantage an entire spectrum of women and families. From the brave women serving in our military overseas to federal employees and the poorest of our citizens, this bill directly aims to restrict access for those in need.”

See where your Senators stand and then contact them voicing your support or disgust, depending. And, if you can, float a little money at Planned Parenthood – the organization really is on the frontline protecting reproductive freedom and it needs all the help it can get right now.

In honor of International Women’s Day, let’s extend the laws of this land to our courageous women in uniform, whether they’re standing on its soil or not.

Image: Familymwr