On the same day that the Department of Defense announced the end of the ban on women in combat, a study revealed an increase in the number of unintended pregnancies among military women. February’s Obstetrics & Gynecology noted that 10.5 percent of military women reported an unplanned pregnancy in the past year, a rate higher than the general population. The report mirrored a similar finding published in the September 2011 issue of Contraception Journal.
The findings of the surveys are particularly disturbing since unwanted pregnancies are a special problem for members of the armed forces serving overseas. Since 1996, Federal law has banned abortion-related services on US military bases and facilities. According to the National Abortion Federation, the Federal law banning military abortion services “is a blatant disregard for the reproductive rights of female soldiers and also constitutes a direct threat to their health and welfare.” One of the chief defenders of the law has been President Obama’s nominee to be the next Secretary of Defense, Senator Chuck Hegel. As Secretary of Defense, Hagel will be responsible for providing health care to over 200,000 female soldiers, military wives and their daughters.
The normally vocal reproductive rights lobby has, for the most part, either remained silent, or endorsed Hegel’s nomination outright. Every Democratic Senator has endorsed Hagel’s nomination, including staunch reproductive rights advocates like Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), and his nomination appears certain. Senator Shaheen went so far as to praise Chuck Hagel for serving “as a voice of pragmatism and principle” in the Senate.
It is difficult to reconcile the Chuck Hagel described by Senator Shaheen with the Chuck Hagel who argued, during his first senate campaign in 1995, that he did not believe that rape or incest were necessary exceptions to laws prohibiting abortion. An article on Hagel’s abortion record by Adam Serwer in last December’s Mother Jones cited Hagel’s matter-of-fact statement that “if I want to prevent abortions, I don’t think those two exceptions are relevant.” It is also difficult to reconcile Senator Shaheen’s pragmatization of Hagel with a twelve year Senate voting record that was an anti-choice crusade against access to safe reproductive health care for American women. Senator Hagel’s more notorious anti-choice votes include:
- his 2000 vote to block the repeal of the Federal ban on abortions on military bases and DOD facilities.
- his 2005 vote against spending $100 million to reduce teen pregnancy by education and contraception.
- his 2006 vote to require health care facilities to notify the parents of minors who receive out of state abortions.
- his 2007 vote in favor of barring organizations that perform abortions from receiving HHS grants.
- his 2008 vote to make it a Federal crime to transport minors across state lines for an abortion.
According to the 2005, 2006 and 2008 “Congressional Record on Choice,” NARAL’s member of Congress scorecard on reproductive rights, Senator Hagel consistently received a score of “0″ because of his extreme anti-choice voting record. It is not surprising that he also received a 94% score from the National Right to Life Committee. Less than 5 years after receiving his last “0″ score from NARAL, Secretary of Defense nominee Hagel promised his former Senate colleagues that if he is confirmed he “will ensure female service members are given the same reproductive rights as civilian women.”
Military women stationed overseas are often faced with serious logistical, financial and command support problems in accessing safe reproductive health care. Soldiers are required to pay for their own abortions, including the cost of transportation to a safe health care provider, and must be granted a medical leave from their commanding officer. When they can’t afford to pay for a flight back to the United States, or have a commanding officer who is hostile to reproductive rights, female service members are left to fend for themselves in countries where they often don’t speak the language. A 2002 General Accounting Office Report on “DOD’s Women’s Health Care” revealed that: