Loretta Sanchez

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Rep. Loretta Sanchez grew more and more incensed as she read aloud from a letter sent to her by a woman serving in the U.S. Army. The soldier wrote that her birth-control failed her and she became pregnant. To preserve her military career, she decided to have an abortion.

But she was stationed in Germany. And under a law passed by Congress in 1996 and reaffirmed recently, abortions cannot be performed at military hospitals, even at the expense of the patient. So, the soldier wrote, she had to take vacation time, fly back to the United States and have an abortion there. She was out $1,100, and returned to work angry at the country she was fighting to protect.

“I can only remember thinking at the time how unfair it was that I had to resort to these drastic measures,” the soldier wrote in September 2001. “Had I been in the states, it would have been no issue. I remember being resentful of my fellow male comrades, who are able to have vasectomies at the cost of the military in Germany. And I had to use my leave time and own funds to fly back to the U.S. for what is also a reproductive choice.”

Sanchez, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said she has received a number of similar letters. “A lot of women write to me and they tell me about these humiliating things they have to deal with” because of the Pentagon’s ban on abortions, she said during a recent interview in her Capitol Hill office.

While women soldiers gained prominence fighting–and dying–in Iraq, Sanchez, a California Democrat, decided to do battle at home. She was the primary House sponsor of an amendment that would allow women to use their own money to pay for abortions at American military hospitals overseas. Sens. Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington, and Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican, sponsored a similar measure in the Senate.

They lost in both the House and the Senate on May 22. They have lost every year since 1996.

Sanchez said the existing law not only deprives servicewomen and military dependents of a right they have in the United States–where they can pay for the procedure at non-military facilities–but it often violates their privacy by forcing them to tell commanding officers why they need speedy leaves of absence.

“That’s really the whole issue of Roe v. Wade,” she said.

With President Bush in the White House and a Congress controlled by anti-choice Republicans, there is little chance the ban will be overturned anytime soon.

Abortions Less Available, More Critical in Hotspots

That means as more and more women enter the military and serve in hot spots overseas, access to abortions will become at once more critical and less available, said Julia Ernst, legislative counsel for the Center for Reproductive Rights, a New York-based litigation and advocacy organization.

The problems, she said, “should be obvious to anyone who’s been watching the war in Iraq. It would be nearly impossible (for women in the military) to leave their post, hop a plane to the United States, get an abortion and go back into active duty. It can create a real security issue.”

“The whole reason that the United States military has health-care facilities overseas is it can be dangerous for military personnel to fly home for health care,” she said. “Many of these hospitals are in very remote locations.”

Pentagon spokesperson declined requests to discuss the ban. “We have taken the position that the current law and [Department of Defense] policy restricts the use of funds and facilities to perform abortions except in the case where the life of the mother is at stake,” spokesperson James Turner wrote in an e-mail. “This administration supports the law and this view.”

The military abortion ban has been around, on and off and in different forms, for a quarter century. Initially, Congress prohibited most federally funded abortions in the military, as it did for Medicaid recipients and federal employees.

For a decade, women still could obtain abortions in military hospitals if they paid for the procedure themselves. The Pentagon put a stop to that in 1988, except in cases of rape, incest or life-endangerment.

In one of his first acts after taking office in 1993, President Clinton lifted the ban on privately funded abortions. But after Republicans took control of Congress in 1995, they reinstated it.

“I don’t think we want to have military facilities used for abortions,” said Elaine Donnelly, a conservative activist who served under two Republican presidents on panels that examined the role of women in the military. “That is an issue of morality that is strongly held by many people in the military and I think it would be disheartening and demoralizing to see that happening.”

Donnelly, now president of the Center for Military Readiness, which specializes in military personnel issues but does not take a position on abortion, said, speaking for herself, if military doctors performed abortions they would have inadequate time to provide other medical services.

“I think the demand would escalate quite quickly and it really would have a serious effect on the availability of medical care,” she said.

At the current time, no way exists to tally the effects of the prohibition and to determine how many servicewomen request leaves to obtain abortions or whether any forgo the procedure because it is not readily available.

The number of abortions performed at military facilities dropped dramatically over the decades. In the year that ended Aug. 31, 1977, before military abortions were restricted by law, about 26,000 were performed in military hospitals or covered by military insurance, according to a 2002 report by the Congressional Research Service and provided by the Pentagon.

In fiscal 1979, though the Pentagon prohibited publicly funded abortions, it permitted military hospitals overseas to perform some 1,300 abortions because safe civilian facilities were not available, the report said.

But in 1993 and 1994, after Clinton lifted the ban on privately funded abortions, military hospitals overseas performed the procedure only 37 times, and 10 of those were cases in which women’s lives were endangered, the Congressional Research Service report said. It attributed the small number, in part, to the refusal of most military physicians to perform the procedure.

Private Abortions Not Always Possible Overseas

Even if servicewomen wanted to obtain private abortions, it isn’t always possible. Many countries have outlawed the procedure. In others, “the medical facilities are such that you wouldn’t want it done,” said Lory Manning, who studies women in the military for the Women’s Research and Education Institute, a Washington think tank that analyzes the impact of government policies on women.

Retired Lieut. Gen. Claudia Kennedy, the Army’s only female three-star general, added that many officers oppose abortion and they have the authority to reject or delay women’s requests for leaves. She recalled a time in Germany when a woman officer sidestepped her male supervisor and asked Kennedy’s permission to grant a soldier time off to get an abortion.

The officer then accompanied the soldier to a German hospital, Kennedy said in an interview. “They had patients, women, sitting in the hallways with no tops on and men and women alike walking around,” she said. “Her modesty was not respected and she didn’t have pain medication for the procedure or for afterward.”

“Imagine my sense of not being able to take good care of my young soldiers,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy, now a consultant, author and chair of First Star, a Virginia-based nonprofit that helps abused and neglected children, said that by often requiring young servicewomen to explain their need for time off and by forcing them to travel from remote locations, the Pentagon is, in effect, “enforcing” pregnancies.

She and other reproductive rights supporters said the United States has a double standard at home and abroad.

“Our troops are overseas defending our Constitution and defending our rights and the rights that are protected by the Supreme Court,” added Ernst of the Center for Reproductive Rights. “We are telling them that as soon as they enter the military, they check those rights at the door.”

Jodi Enda, a former White House and congressional correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers, writes about politics and policy from Washington.

For more information:

NARAL Pro-Choice America–
“Anti-Choice-Led Senate, House Deny Overseas Military Personnel
Right to Privacy”:

Planned Parenthood Foundation of America–
“U.S Military Women and Military Spouses Should Be Protected, Not Penalized For Serving Overseas”:

The Center for Military Readiness: