War Stories

The End of Roe of Is Going to Be a Nightmare for Women in the Military

Female Marines stand in a group listening to a leader.
U.S. Marines, part of the Female Engagement Team, train onboard the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge (LHD 3) on June 7, during an exercise in the Baltic Sea. Jonathan Nackstrand/Getty Images

The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade is about to upend the lives of one group that few activists on either side of the debate have considered—women in the U.S. military.

This is a larger group than many realize, comprising 14 percent of all active-duty armed forces, or about 200,000 women. How many of them seek abortions is unknown. But in a 2011 survey, 7 percent reported having an unintended pregnancy in the previous year—a higher share than the 4 or 5 percent of civilians in the same age bracket. If those statistics are valid today, that would amount to 14,000 annual unintended pregnancies, many of which likely end in termination.

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Military and V.A. medical centers cannot perform abortions due to the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal money from funding the procedure except in cases of rape or incest. But official policy allows them to provide advice and resources on how to get an abortion—and this is what concerns many servicewomen, as well as their doctors and commanders.

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Even before the Court’s decision on Roe, several states have passed laws making it a crime even to give advice about abortion. One of these states is Texas, which has the country’s second-highest number of military bases.

“This is a huge concern,” says Kyleanne Hunter, a Marine combat veteran, former member of the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, and now a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. “If a commander or [medical] provider tells women about this policy, would they be in legal trouble? Could they be accused of aiding and abetting a crime?”

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Hunter says these questions have come up in several focus groups and grassroots discussion groups that she’s led in recent years, dealing with pregnancy, child care, gender bias in recruitment and other servicewomen’s issues. At least two friends of hers have turned down plum assignments because taking the jobs would have meant moving to a base in Texas, and the women didn’t want to take any chances if they became pregnant. Another friend, a commander at a base in Oklahoma, which also passed a restrictive anti-abortion law, told her he doesn’t know what he would say to a servicewoman who came to him about getting an abortion.

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Current military regulations spell out procedures for a servicewoman intending to get an abortion. Under one rule, she must notify her commander that she plans to get the procedure no more than two weeks after learning that she’s pregnant. In the days when Roe dominated, many women ignored this regulation, as they could easily get an abortion in less than two weeks’ time. If a servicewoman has to travel out of state to get an abortion, it would likely take much longer.. In that case, she would have to notify her commander—which raises a lot of unaddressed issues about privacy.

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Thirteen states—including Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Kentucky Florida, and Mississippi, all of which have lots of military bases—have “trigger laws” that outlaw abortion immediately, now that the Supreme Court has overturned Roe. What happens to women on those bases?

Questions such as these are being asked not only in women’s focus groups but also in Congress and the Pentagon. In a House hearing last month, Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston, the service’s top enlisted member, said that the Army’s top officers are drafting new policies to protect military women if the Supreme Court reverses Roe.

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On the same day as the hearing, eight Senate Democrats wrote a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin urging him to ensure that female troops “have the ability to continue accessing safe reproductive health care, no matter where in the nation their military service sends them.” At a minimum, the senators wrote, women should be given extended leave, so they can travel out of state, if necessary, to obtain abortions.

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The defense bill passed earlier this month by the House Appropriations Committee doesn’t quite go that far, though it comes close. It prohibits anyone in the Defense Department from denying leave to servicemembers—or to DoD civilians—who request it for the purpose of obtaining an abortion. The Senate hasn’t yet passed its version of the defense bill, though it will likely contain a similar clause, at least as long as the Democrats are in the majority.

“In the old days, until the early ’80s,” Hunter told me, “if a soldier got pregnant, the policy was basically, ‘Quit or get an abortion.” It was unwritten policy, of course—something like the wink and nudge of “don’t ask, don’t tell” for gay servicemen and women. Now the military can’t ignore the dilemmas. With the repeal of Roe a likely prospect and with restrictive laws already on the books in several states teeming with military bases, the Pentagon’s leaders have to take a stand on how much they really value women in the military.

For more on the legal fight that led to the original Roe versus Wade decision, listen to the latest episode of Slow Burn.

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