Becoming pregnant as a member of a military in a war zone is serious business. But if a service-member decides her circumstances are not appropriate for bringing a child into the world, she’ll have a hard time exercising her right to a procedure that is legal and safe in the nation she represents. Abortion is banned from most military hospitals, even when the service-member pays for it herself. For the 100,000-plus women serving overseas — as well as family members who live with them on foreign bases — this makes abortion a practical impossibility. With no other option available, the military requires service-members to return home within two weeks of finding out about a pregnancy.
Women in the military, then, have less access to health care than their civilian counterparts. But this may change: in the same 852-page bill that may rescind the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, there is an amendment that would make abortion accessible for overseas military service-members, according to the New York Times. The change is small but significant: the provision would allow abortions in military facilities if they are paid upfront with private dollars. It includes an exception for doctors to refuse to perform the procedure if they are morally opposed. If enacted, the amendment would overturn a 1996 congressional ban on all abortion in military facilities, except in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother. Government funds can only be used to save the mother; rape and incest victims must have private funds.
“Every woman honorably serving our country in the U.S. military and the spouses of military personnel stationed around the world deserve access to the full range of reproductive health care available to women in the United States,” said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, in a press statement. PPFA is one of eight organizations that quietly lobbied for the amendment. Why the hush of advocacy groups during their campaign? No doubt they wanted to do their work without navigating the public hysteria that is unleashed anytime the word “abortion” is referenced. And on this particular issue of abortion, the opposition message is well oiled. It contends that U.S. citizens subsidize military abortion, even if it is privately financed, because it occurs in a government facility, using the military service’s doctors and surgical equipment.
Facing votes in the full Senate and House, abortion is poised to continue its curious intersection with the U.S. military. Historically, the military has shifted between being retrograde and progressive when it comes to reproductive rights. As the war in Vietnam raged in 1970, the military actually legalized abortion — three years before Roe v. Wade. According to the Times, the policy was revoked by President Richard Nixon after one year — though an Air Force statute lingered, which required “even married female officers who became pregnant to be discharged unless they terminated the pregnancy, although they could not do so in military hospital.”
After abortion was legalized nationally in 1973, military hospitals offered the procedure as standard care until congressional restrictions in the late 1970s halted it. President Bill Clinton legalized privately financed abortions in the military in 1993 through an executive order, but it was short-lived, overwhelmed by the 1996 ban on nearly all abortions — a ban that itself may be facing numbered days.