Military abortions: No good choices

The ban on federal funding leaves pregnant service members with terrible options

By Kate Harding
December 15, 2009 11:16PM (UTC)
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"The ban on abortions at military hospitals hasn't been a prominent aspect of abortion rights advocacy in recent years, as reproductive rights activists have scrambled to avoid losing further ground to anti-abortion measures like the House health care bill's Stupak amendment or the corresponding Nelson amendment defeated last week in the Senate," writes Kathryn Joyce at Religion Dispatches. "But there are reasons why it should be." Among those is the story of a former Marine she calls Amy, who found herself pregnant in Falllujah two years ago. Except in cases of rape, incest or a threat to the woman's life, military hospitals cannot provide abortions, due to restrictions on federal funding of them -- and meanwhile, a soldier risks substantial personal and professional repercussions if she admits to being pregnant at all. She can be punished for having sex in a war zone (even if, as Amy later recognized was the case, she was raped), denied promotions, derided by commanding officers and humiliated by her peers. As National Abortion Federation president Vicki Saporta told Joyce, "If you're a woman in the military, you're going to have to obtain a leave to get the care you need. If you're honest about why you need that care, you put your military career in jeopardy. If you're not honest, then you put your military career in jeopardy." Or, as Amy put it, it's "like being given a choice between swimming in a pond full of crocodiles or piranhas."

So, unable to access a safe and legal abortion, Amy used "herbal abortifacient supplements ordered online... her sanitized rifle cleaning rod and a laundry pin" to induce a miscarriage. The first time she tried it, she lost a tremendous amount of blood, but remained pregnant. The second time, she became so ill afterwards, she sought help from a female supervisor. After being taken to a military hospital, she miscarried alone, got a $500 fine for having sex in a war zone, and eventually asked to be sent home -- a request granted because a military psychiatrist was easily persuaded that Amy was unstable. "They convinced themselves that anyone who would do a self-abortion is crazy," she told Joyce. "It's not a crazy thing. It's something that rational, thinking women do when they have no options."


It's something that rational, thinking women do when they have no options. Today, when an entire generation of American pro-choice activists was born after Roe v. Wade, when those of us who've been geographically and financially able to access legal abortion -- and/or had the education, available contraception and good fortune to avoid pregnancy -- hear the words "back alley" and only picture Cynthia Rhodes hemorrhaging prettily in "Dirty Dancing," that point cannot be emphasized enough. Banning abortion does not stop women from seeking to end unwanted pregnancies; it drives them to risk their own lives and health to do so. And that's continued even since the Supreme Court declared that abortion is a Constitutionally protected right, thanks to restrictions on when and where abortions can be performed, and who pays for them. The military ban, Joyce writes, creates "just one more category of women -- including those below the poverty line, federal employees, those cared for by Indian Health Service and Peace Corps volunteers -- who fall into the canyons created by sweeping bans on federal funding for abortion." Now, anti-abortion clauses in the healthcare reform bill threaten to add middle-class women to the list -- meaning we'd essentially be right back in 1972, with safe abortion services available only to wealthy women who can afford to skirt the restrictions. The military ban may seem like a low-priority issue to pro-choice activists who aren't among the 200,000 female service members (not to mention spouses and dependents on military bases) directly affected by it, but it's a sobering example of how cutting off access to abortion services endangers people's health and lives. Says Joyce, "Going forward, the failure in care that military women have long had to contend with could be shared by all American women."


Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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