When we talk about the restriction and regulation of abortion access, we often talk (and rightly so) about how what we are really discussing is the restriction of abortion access for people with the least economic and social privilege in society—people without the time, finances, support, or connections to travel somewhere that they can access a safe abortion or to have one safely but illegally performed near their home, with little expectation of punishment.
However, there’s another group of individuals who rely on publicly funded insurance and medical facilities and who, as a result, are sometimes not able to access abortion care when they need it, regardless of their ability to pay: military personnel and their families. Military families not only bear the full burden of costs for abortion care, but in some circumstances they are actively blocked from receiving it even with out-of-pocket funds. Actively inhibiting the provision of a vital health service to personnel and their families is a reprehensible failure by the American state in its ethical and equity obligations to those who put their lives on the line.
What Are The Laws and Rules Regulating Military Abortion Access?
Under current US law,* there are two specific legal restrictions on military abortion access: the restriction of funds to pay for procedures and the restriction of facilities in which those procedures can be performed. Under 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the annual bill that funds national defense activities,** Department of Defense funds may not be used to perform abortions except in cases of rape or incest, or if not receiving an abortion would endanger the life of the mother. This restriction applies both to care provided directly by military health facilities and staff and care provided by civilians and paid for through Tricare, the health care and insurance program for military service personnel, their spouses, and their dependent children. The 2013 NDAA also bars military facilities from performing abortions even if they are paid for out of private funds, again excepting cases of rape or incest or to save the life of the mother.
Impact of Restrictions
These restrictions create exceptional difficulties for service personnel and their families in search of abortion care, especially for those deployed to countries with limited or no availability of safe, affordable civilian abortion services. This is not a fringe issue; among enlisted women, approximately two-thirds of pregnancies are unplanned, and the rates of unplanned pregnancy across all branches and including both officers and enlisted women are higher than civilian averages. While not all of these service personnel will necessarily want to seek abortions, the funding and facilities bans create major obstacles for those that do. Those deployed to areas without safe civilian facilities must travel out of country, which requires time off and raises the cost of an abortion, if they are able to successfully pursue one at all. Even those living in areas where civilian-provided abortions are safe and legal must often travel long distances and face significant obstacles to obtain an abortion, without any insurance compensation to defray the costs. Of the five states with more than 50,000 active duty personnel, four have the kind of restrictions that mean patients travel further to obtain abortions and delay seeking care longer because of cost or inconvenience, even as those same restrictions may prevent them from receiving later-term abortion care at all.
The effect of these restrictions is to deny equal constitutional rights to persons serving in the military, in ways that further no national security objective and in fact inhibit the ability of women, who make up a growing percentage of the all-volunteer force, to serve fully and effectively in the military.
Everyone deserves access to safe, affordable healthcare, but the government’s denial of access to that care for the very people who risk their lives in the name of that government is particularly unfair and unacceptable. You can help support the rights of military personnel and their families:
Contact your representatives to let them know you want them to support the MARCH Act (H.R. 1389/S.777), which would allow abortions to be performed in military facilities with the use of private funds. The bill currently has 58 cosponsors in the House and 20 cosponsors in the Senate; it is supported by the Department of Defense.
While you’re at it, let your representatives know that you support an end to other restrictions of abortion access for personnel and their families, including the funding ban that prevents military healthcare from covering the costs of abortion.
Support your state or city’s abortion fund to help those seeking abortions manage the cost—especially if there’s a base, shipyard, or air field in your area.
* For a detailed history of the regulation of military abortion, which has at various times in the past made abortion both more accessible and less accessible than it is today, see the Congressional Research Service’s Abortion Services and Military Medical Facilities report.
** H.R. 4310, National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013 (Sec. 704), 10 U.S.C., Section 1093.
Leah Gates is a doctoral student in International Relations at American University in Washington, DC. Her doctoral research investigates the persistence of violence, such as hazing and sexual assault, within the ranks of military personnel. You can follow her on Twitter.