Female soldiers train at the Cultural Support Assessment and Selection program at Fort Bragg.

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.

Army woman

US Army photo by Cpl. Clifton D. Sams

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 20052006 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.”

U.S. Airforce F-15 Pilots at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska

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:

In some cases … commanders have not been adequately trained about the importance of women’s basic health care and its effect on readiness…. DOD officials said that, lacking this understanding, some commanders may be reluctant to allow active duty members — both men and women — time away from their duty station to obtain health care services — especially if the commander perceives that their time away will negatively affect the primary mission. For active duty women, explaining their specific ailment to their commanding officer (usually male) or appearing like they need special treatment may make them reluctant to seek the care they need.

In 2002, the same year that the GAO report was released, Lieutenant General Claudia J. Kennedy (ret.) sent a letter to members of the Senate Armed Services Committee in which she described the experience of a female soldier serving under her command who needed an abortion while serving overseas:

I was a battalion commander of an intelligence battalion in Augsburg, Germany, from 1986 until 1988. One day a non commissioned officer (NCO), who was one of the battalion’s senior women, came into my office and asked for permission to take a day off later in the week and to have the same day off for a young soldier in the battalion. She said the soldier was pregnant and wanted an abortion – yet had no way to have an abortion at the U.S. Army medical facility in Augsburg. She had gotten information about a German clinic in another city, and they were going there for the procedure. The soldier did not have enough money to return to the USA for the abortion. Further, she did not want to have to tell her predicament to her chain of command in order to get the time and other assistance to go to the States. I told the NCO to go with her and to let me know when they had returned.Later the NCO told me that the experience had been both mortifying and painful…. no pain killer of any sort was administered for the procedure; the modesty of this soldier and the other women at the clinic had been violated (due to different cultural expectations about nudity); and neither she nor the soldier understood German, and the instructions were given in almost unintelligible English. I believe that they were able to get some follow up care for the soldier at the U.S. Army medical facility. But it was a searing experience for all of us – that in a very vulnerable time, this American who was serving her country overseas could not count on the Army to give her the care she needed.

According to a 2011 survey, published in the medical journal Women’s Health Issues, female soldiers “reported facing numerous challenges accessing abortion overseas, including legal and logistical barriers to care in-country, and real or perceived difficulties accessing abortion elsewhere owing to confidentiality concerns, fear of military reprimand for the pregnancy, and the narrow time frame for early abortion.” The survey, “Abortion Restrictions in the U.S. Military: Voices from Women Deployed Overseas,” found that some soldiers resort to life-threatening self-induced abortions to terminate a potentially career ending pregnancy.

A 2009 essay by Kathryn Joyce in Religion Dispatches (RD) magazine describes the case of an active duty Marine who became pregnant in a combat zone while serving as a military journalist with the II Marine Expeditionary Force in Iraq:

Unable to find a coat hanger she used her sanitized rifle cleaning rod and a laundry pin to manually dislodge the fetus while lying on a towel on the bathroom floor. It was a procedure she attempted twice, each time hemorrhaging profusely. Amy lost so much blood on the first attempt that her skin blanched and her ears rang. She continued working for five weeks, despite increasing sickness, until she realized she was still pregnant.

The morning after her second attempt, she awoke in great pain, and finally told a female supervisor, who told Amy to take an emergency leave to fly back to the United States where a private abortion clinic could finish the procedure. However, Amy was afraid that she would miscarry on the 15-hour plane ride and have no medical escort to help her. She went to the military hospital instead and told the doctor everything. Shortly thereafter, her company first sergeant and other officers were notified of Amy’s condition. The first sergeant came to her hospital room to announce that Amy would be punished under Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which addresses violations of general regulations, for having had sex in a combat zone.

What happened to these soldiers is an outrage and an affront to what Justice Sandra Day O’Conner once called “the fundamental dignity and individuality of each human being.” It is also a reminder that a Senator’s vote — like the one Chuck Hagel used to block a repeal of the Federal ban on military abortions — have consequences that hurt real people.

It is not exactly clear why reproductive rights lobby have accepted their former arch-enemy’s last-minute “road to Damascus” conversion. Their failure to oppose Chuck Hagel’s nomination raises the question of why they are suddenly AWOL in what they have described as “the war on military women.”

Donna Crane, policy director at NARAL Pro-Choice America, told Laura Bassett at the Huffington Post in January that “NARAL’s view is that Chuck Hagel would carry out the president’s policies. President Obama’s pro-choice views are strong and well-known, and we believe. Mr. Hagel would follow them.” She said substantially the same thing a week earlier to Mother Jones. The NARAL talking points were repeated like a mantra by a number of pro-choice advocates who were contacted for a comment on Senator Hagel’s past life as an anti-choice zealot. No one was willing to go on record in opposition to his nomination. A lawyer that works in a pro-choice advocacy group, who insisted on remaining anonymous, was willing to explain that “many people feel we are part of an important coalition, and nobody wants to be disloyal. The word has come down that this is an important nomination for the President,” the lawyer said. “We trust President Obama’s judgment, we don’t believe he would do anything to harm reproductive rights and we don’t want to do anything to harm his foreign policy goals.”

If the record of past pro-choice presidents is any indication, the ability of a Secretary of Defense to follow orders will not be enough to reform a bureaucracy that continues to deny military women access to safe reproductive health care. According to a 2010 report by the Congressional Research Service, “Abortion Services and Military Medical Facilities,“ President Clinton’s attempts to implement pro-choice policies at the DOD during his first term were largely ineffective. “In practice, the policy instituted by President Clinton’s 1993 actions may not have had the effects the President had expected.” the report noted. “Although abortion access had been liberalized in terms of overall policy, liberalization had not necessarily occurred in terms of actual access.”

The history of Clinton’s first term suggests that pro-choice policies do not necessarily translate into pro-choice action unless they are backed by a heavy combat boot ready to kick start compliance. NARAL’s faith that someone like Chuck Hagel will be willing to wield that boot is badly misplaced. The poor treatment of the Fort Hood massacre victims by the DOD is a recent example of how Barack Obama’s best intentions are not always followed through by military commanders.

There is no reason for NARAL, or anyone else concerned with reproductive freedom, to believe that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel will be as zealous in protecting the reproductive rights of military women as Senator Chuck Hagel was in repeatedly blocking their access to such services. As women prepare to carry out their historic role as combat soldiers, a necessary bottom-up reform of DOD policies and training on reproductive rights can only be accomplished by a pro-active pro choice Secretary of Defense with a strong record of advocating on behalf of reproductive rights for military women.

Pro-choice advocates who remain silent, out of a fear they may hurt President Obama’s foreign policy agenda, should reconsider their support for Chuck Hagel’s nomination. America’s military women need their support much more than President Barack Obama needs their silence.

Cross posted from The Rule of Wolves