New research: Servicewomen report the US military’s abortion policy harms physical and emotional health

November 2017

Servicewomen in the US military report a lack of support and fears about confidentiality, stigma, and negative career impacts when they choose to have an abortion, according to a paper published in Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health.

US servicewomen have a significantly higher rate of unintended pregnancy than civilian women have, yet the abortion policy of the US military only permits abortion in military medical facilities in the case of rape, incest, or life endangerment, making it difficult for servicewomen to access this care.

“Our research shows that women in the US military face unique hurdles when considering abortion, including negative health and emotional consequences resulting from the abortion policy,” said Kate Grindlay, lead author of the paper and associate at Ibis. “For some, the policy led to delayed access to services or feeling stressed or alone in the process when they did not have formal military support. Others noted the potential for women receiving substandard care when they are deployed and must seek services on their own.”

Logistical and financial concerns were also raised by women in the study. Servicewomen had to travel to an outside clinic, often located an hour or more away from their base, because military facilities do not perform abortions in most circumstances. Almost all of the women interviewed paid out of pocket for the procedure, which cost an average of $493. In some of the cases with a higher out-of-pocket cost, the procedure cost represented a full paycheck.

“Whether stationed domestically or overseas, servicewomen can face barriers to accessing abortion care. Many military bases in the United States are located in states with restrictive abortion policies, where servicewomen face the combined impacts of military restrictions and local obstacles to care. Women who are deployed abroad or at sea can face even greater geographic barriers,” said Grindlay.

Most servicewomen in the study believed that the military should provide and cover abortion, reporting that the current exclusion from their health coverage is unfair. “We don’t always plan to break our leg, but the government still pays to manage and take care of us when that happens,” said one participant in the study. At the same time, servicewomen also reported apprehension about the military being involved with abortion care, fearing possible negative career impacts and privacy concerns.

Given the results of the study, we recommend that the military implement wider dissemination of its abortion policy, which covers and provides abortion for rape, incest, and life endangerment; establish abortion referral and support guidelines; and improve confidentiality in military health services. To read more about our work on reproductive health in the US military, visit our project page.