In late May, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved an amendment that could create significant changes for pregnant servicewomen, especially those stationed overseas. Sen. Roland Burris (D) of Illinois added language to the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act that would allow US military health facilities to provide abortions for servicewomen.
The full Senate will decide the fate of the amendment soon.
Though well-intentioned, a policy to allow abortions at military bases and hospitals will almost certainly create a more hostile environment for pregnant servicewomen.
Women who get pregnant while deployed or before deployment often come under a great deal of scrutiny and are often stigmatized by both their peers and leaders, alike. This often occurs regardless of the circumstances involved in the pregnancy.
A prime example of such stigmatization occured last November, when a major general in command of operations in northern Iraq established a policy that threatened servicewoman with court martial and possible prison time if they became pregnant. The policy was created to discourage soldiers from intentionally getting pregnant to avoid deployment.
As detrimental as it can be for a deployed unit to lose a soldier due to pregnancy, this approach is very disturbing because of the way it treats women. Due to the public and political outcry, that policy lasted less than two months. Unfortunately, the mind-set behind the idea is still very much alive and has an enormous impact on pregnant servicewoman.
Current US military policy removes females from combat areas within 14 days of a pregnancy being confirmed. As much as these circumstances may frustrate or anger commanders, leaders and peers, this policy protects what matters most: the well-being of a mother and her unborn child.
This policy – in conjunction with the military’s ban on providing abortions at bases – provides both the soldier who seeks to keep her child and the soldier who chooses to have an abortion the opportunity to leave the stress of combat before making a final decision. The decision to have an abortion, as saddening as such a choice is to me, should not be made in a combat environment.
An issue of fairness?
The president of Planned Parenthood claims that soldiers’ lack of access to abortions is “an issue of basic fairness.”
But is it really fair to keep a pregnant woman in a combat environment and miles away from her family and friends who would better serve as unbiased supporters of such an important decision? If America’s political leaders really care about the soldier, they should insist that such a decision be made at home with family and outside of the arena of combat and governmental influence.
Supporters claim that the amendment is intended to help women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan who face mistreatment when they get pregnant. It is argued that by providing access to abortions at military facilities servicewomen are given an opportunity to avoid such mistreatment.
The Center for Reproductive Rights argues that the amendment would give women the legal rights they have been denied for 30 years.
This statement is, at the very least, misleading. The military is not denying servicewomen the right to have an abortion. The military has simply, for the past 15 years, kept it hands off of such a decision and allowed women the opportunity to make such decisions outside of government operated facilities.
The military’s refusal to pay and provide for such services is not the same as keeping woman from their rights to have abortion. (Under the proposed amendment, women would have to pay for the procedure.)
The New York Times recently quoted a former servicewoman who stated that pregnancy in a war zone robs women of any hope of getting promoted.
I do not doubt that is true for some women. Leaders should not assume that every woman who gets pregnant in the military is trying to get out of being deployed, but unfortunately they often do. This is a serious problem.
However, the Burris amendment is simply providing abortion as a solution when pregnancy alone is not the problem. If the real concern is over pregnant servicewomen being stigmatized or stripped of the opportunity for promotion, then there needs to be a policy that directly confronts these specific issue.
Combat readiness and unit cohesion is vital to the success and morale of every unit. When a woman gets pregnant in combat it can have a negative impact, but unfortunately commanders and leaders sometimes get tunnel vision when focusing on the mission and can often ignore other important matters.
The well-being of soldiers and the life (or, depending on your point of view, the possibility of life) of their unborn children should always come first.
Yet allowing military facilities to provide abortions would give military leaders the opportunity to put pressure on soldiers when pregnancy interferes, or appears to interfere, with mission goals. Indeed, repealing the ban might end up encouraging abortions, because female soldiers would face implicit, or even explicit, pressure to put the mission ahead of their pregnancy. Is this something that we really want America’s daughters – and their unborn children – exposed to?
If you doubt that military leaders are capable of such coldness, remember that for two months the Army had a policy that threatened pregnant servicewomen with jail time.
Having served in the Army for more than four years, I’ve witnessed attitudes and behaviors that can be more powerful and intimidating than policy.
Rather than dealing with this issue holistically, this amendment only provides a “solution” to end a controversial pregnancy and dangerously places the “solution” within the military’s reach. In fact, this policy offers no real solution to the problems that supporters point out.
America's servicewomen deserve better
The issue over abortion is a very complex and complicated issue. It is layered with debates that will most likely never be settled.
Whatever your feelings may be on abortion in general, please understand that this is not the solution to this specific problem.
If this amendment passes and overseas military facilities are allowed to provide abortions, it will place pressure on women to get abortions so they can avoid being labeled and mistreated. This will surely cause a more hostile environment for our servicewomen.
America’s mothers, daughters, sisters, and their unborn children deserve better. We must demand that US military facilities are not permitted to provide abortion so that pregnant soldiers can make intensely personal and private decisions outside the pressures of the combat environment.
Joey Hendrix is an active duty officer in the United States Army.