Even before the US Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade, military personnel were fighting over abortions. Navigating various state laws, getting vacations, and making travel arrangements was not easy.
“Because it was so difficult, the obstacles I had to overcome and jump over, it reset where I thought I would fit in the military,” said Air Force Maj. Sharon Arana.
In 2009, Arana became pregnant while attending officer training in Alabama. She took a test in a gas station toilet instead of going to the base clinic, fearing her command would find out about the pregnancy.
Arana and her boyfriend eventually decided to have a medical abortion, but were unable to get an appointment in Alabama because there were so few clinics. When they went to Georgia, they faced another problem. The couple paid hundreds of dollars for a hotel, medical imaging, and tests, only to learn that Georgia law requires a cooling-off period.
“They said, ‘Well, there’s a three-day wait,'” Arana said. “I say, ‘I don’t have three days, I have to go back to training.’ So we went back the next day and then I graduated that week.”
Arana later underwent an abortion in New York while on vacation to visit her family. But had that timeout not already been in place, she said she doesn’t know what she would have done.
These experiences are paramount for her now that abortion is no longer protected by federal law. Arana has shared her story and even testified before Congress, concerned that experiences like hers are becoming more common.
“This is now directly impacting our Airmen and our families,” she said. “None of us asked for it. We can’t choose where we live. We don’t get to choose where we’re stationed… We should be protected from a lot of that.”
Arana also helped shape a new Department of Defense policy that allows military members to take up to three weeks of administrative leave for abortions or fertility treatments and reimburses them for travel expenses. It gives service members more time – 20 weeks – before they have to notify commanders of their pregnancy. It also restricts healthcare providers from telling commanders about it.
“The Department has heard from service members and their families about the complexity and uncertainty they now face in accessing reproductive health care,” said Department of Defense spokesman Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman.
“The Department of Reproductive Health Care’s efforts not only ensure Soldiers and their families are given time and flexibility to make personal and private health care decisions, but also ensure that Soldiers, regardless of where they are stationed, have access to… have supply . These guidelines help address the fact that military members may be forced to travel greater distances, take more time off work, and incur higher expenses to access reproductive health care.”
According to some proponents, the military has taken an important step to meet the health needs of the troops.
“The military hasn’t really been a leader on reproductive access issues in the past, and to see that it is taking the needs of military personnel seriously is a refreshing change, especially when it comes to gender,” said Claire McKinney, a College of William and Mary Professor who studies Gender, Politics and Reproduction.
To take leave, service members need only report their request to their commander as “unmet reproductive health needs” and provide details of the clinic where they requested abortion or fertility treatment.
Lorry Fenner, director of government relations at the Service Women’s Action Network, said the policy does a good job of balancing troops’ privacy with mission requirements – but implementing it will not be easy.
“There will be problems,” Fenner said. “There are commanders who don’t get the word or who disagree and do everything they can to short-circuit this. Because they believe that their mission is the top priority. But the secretary reminds them that the health and welfare of their members fulfill that mission.”
Meanwhile, some Republicans are trying to block politics.
With the Hyde Amendment and other regulations, Congress already prohibits the federal government from paying for abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or when the mother’s life is in danger. Republican Senator Tommy Tuberville of Alabama argues that paying for travel to an abortion provider goes against the spirit of Hyde.
“Secretary Austin’s new abortion policy is immoral and arguably illegal. If he wants to change the law, he has to go through Congress,” he said in a Senate speech.
Republican members of Congress say they plan to try to explicitly make the policy illegal. They have proposed legislation that would ban the Department of Defense from funding travel by military personnel to obtain abortions.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration reporting on American military life and veterans.
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