After Dobbs, troops seeking abortions may face long drives, career risks, privacy concerns
When Allison Gill was recruited into the Navy's Nuclear Power Training Command in the mid 90s, it was a male-dominated world where she felt deeply unwelcome.
“There weren't any women. It was just men, and they weren't happy to see me,” Gill said. “They didn't have any facilities yet. There wasn't an OBGYN on base. All of the men had to take sensitivity training and sexual harassment training, which they never had to take before. Because here I come.”
Gill was just a few weeks into training in Florida when a colleague drugged and violently raped her at a party. But when she reported it, Navy officials accused her of lying and threatened her career.
“They said, ‘So why don't we just chalk this up to what it is: a bad decision on your part’? she remembered. “I was convinced that yeah man, this was my fault. I’d better not file a false report. All of those terrible things will happen to me.”
Things got worse for Gill when she found out she was pregnant as a result of the assault. So she went to a Planned Parenthood clinic near the base to get an abortion on a Saturday morning. She was back in time to attend a mandatory study period that afternoon.
Many military women today are no longer able to do that as easily or privately, Gill said. Under a longstanding federal provision, military medical facilities can perform abortions only in cases of rape, incest, or risk to the mother’s life.
Service women used to get around that obstacle by seeking abortion care off base. But now that several states have outlawed abortion, women have to travel to places where the procedure is legal.
“If you have to put in for leave and say where you're going, and you have to travel out of state, you either have to lie on a government document, which is a court martial-able offense," Gill said. "Or you have to tell them what you're doing and hope they approve it. Then it's in your records."
“You have to make a decision that feels like, ‘Do I ruin my career? Or do I ruin my career this other way?’”
State abortion bans heavily affect training bases, where troops don’t make as much money and have less freedom of movement. Even states with legal abortion sometimes require waiting periods and multiple doctor visits, making the trip harder and more expensive for out-of-state military women.
“A lot of them don't have cars — particularly the younger enlisted women — so that they can't drive themselves,” said Lory Manning, legislative director of the Service Women’s Action Network.
“Sometimes we're talking 500, 600, 700 or 1,000 miles to get to a state where it can be done.”
In addition to the travel, advocates say military women seeking abortions face unique privacy concerns.
Nonprofit research and advocacy organization Ibis Reproductive Health interviewed 21 servicewomen who had had abortions during active-duty service. The women reported on their experiences accessing abortion, as well as their knowledge and opinions of the military's abortion policy.
Many feared privacy breaches. One said her chain of command was given her pregnancy test results without her consent.
“A lot of those types of barriers are unique to folks in the military because of the military’s specific rules about where pregnant people can be deployed, what jobs they can have and repercussions because of stigma,” said Ibis Reproductive Health president Kelly Blanchard.
Just before the Supreme Court's Dobbs decision that overturned Roe vs. Wade, the Army and Air Force issued new policies. They prevent commanders from denying leave for abortion and clarify that women don't have to disclose their reason for requesting leave.
But the Navy and Marine Corps have not followed suit. During a House Armed Services Committee hearing in late July, Defense Undersecretary Gil Cisneros stopped short of promising further policy changes.
“Dobbs created a lot of complexities,” Cisneros said. “It was 26 — now it’s as many as 29 — states where we are having to navigate the different laws in each state and to see how that affects our service members in each state. We are currently reviewing our policies and procedures.”
Cisneros said the military has a solemn obligation to ensure personnel have the healthcare they need. He also raised a second concern: that abortion restrictions could make it hard for the military to bring in and retain service members at a time when recruitment numbers are already low.
In the absence of federal protections, Gill said she fears for military women who need abortions.
”They're absolutely trapped,” she said.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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