Pregnancy as punishable offense

Female soldiers (and supposedly their male partners) might face a court martial for being in the family way

By Kate Harding
December 21, 2009 9:22PM (UTC)
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In an article about the ban on military abortions that Broadsheet covered last week, Kathryn Joyce describes what it was like for a Marine named Amy when she became pregnant in Iraq: "Amy knew that if her pregnancy were discovered, she would be sent back to her home base at North Carolina's Camp Lejeune... She also knew she could face reprimands from her commanding officers for having had sex in Iraq (part of a broader prohibition on sex in war zones), and that she might not be promoted as a result: a potentially career-ending situation in the Marines, where failure to obtain regular promotions results in being discharged. Moreover, as a woman in the military, accustomed to proving herself to her male peers over her six-year career, Amy was wary of appearing a 'weak female.'"

Other pregnant service members have faced similar dilemmas, and now, for women serving under Army Maj. Gen. Anthony Cucolo in northern Iraq, pregnancy itself will be a punishable offense. Cucolo told the BBC the threat of a court martial for pregnant soldiers is intended to be a deterrent to unprotected sex. The policy will apply to both the man and woman involved in a pregnancy, even if they're married. "I've got a mission to do, I'm given a finite number of soldiers with which to do it and I need every one of them," Cucolo said. "So I'm going to take every measure I can to keep them all strong, fit and with me for the twelve months we are in the combat zone."


Unfortunately, this isn't just a matter of making sure married couples or consenting partners remember to use a condom. For starters, birth control occasionally fails. Then there's the fact that even if Cucolo claims men and women will both be punished for pregnancies, only one gender can plausibly deny any involvement in a given pregnancy; if a man swears he's not the father, what happens next? According to the American Pregnancy Association, "Paternity testing from an accredited laboratory typically costs between $400.00 and $2,000.00" -- who picks up the tab? -- and if testing is to be done before a baby is born, the woman will likely have to undergo an invasive procedure.

Most troubling, though, is the thought that women who, as Amy says she did, become pregnant by rape, will be court-martialed for it. As California Congresswoman Jane Harman wrote in the L.A. Times in 2008, "Women serving in the U.S. military are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire in Iraq." During a visit to a veteran's hospital, writes Harman, "My jaw dropped when the doctors told me that 41% of female veterans seen at the clinic say they were victims of sexual assault while in the military, and 29% report being raped during their military service." And "at the heart of this crisis," she says, "is an apparent inability or unwillingness to prosecute rapists in the ranks. According to DOD statistics, only 181 out of 2,212 subjects investigated for sexual assault in 2007, including 1,259 reports of rape, were referred to courts-martial, the equivalent of a criminal prosecution in the military."

That's when the rapes are reported. As Helen Benedict wrote in Salon in 2007, they often aren't. "Military platoons are enclosed, hierarchical societies, riddled with gossip, so any woman who reports a rape has no realistic chance of remaining anonymous. She will have to face her assailant day after day, and put up with rumors, resentment and blame from other soldiers. Furthermore, she runs the risk of being punished by her assailant if he is her superior."


So a woman who becomes pregnant after being raped faces serious personal and professional risks if she reports the pregnancy or the assault, let alone both; if the pregnancy is discovered, she'll be sent home; if she wants an abortion, she probably can't get one; and now, on top of all that, she might face a court-martial -- which her rapist, if reported, may or may not. And if the man responsible won't admit it, she'll have to go to further lengths to prove his paternity if he's to be eligible even for the same punishment she got. 

If General Cucolo really means to keep all of his soldiers "strong, fit and with [him]," in the combat zone, then instead of cracking down on pregnancies, he should consider taking measures that might more seriously deter rapists from raping, or maybe even advocate for female soldiers to have access to abortion services. But I won't hold my breath. "Gen Cucolo told the BBC it was a 'black and white' issue for him." It's just a shame pregnant soldiers don't have the luxury of seeing things in such simplistic terms.


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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