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Ban Discriminates Against Servicewomen

NEW YORK - Current policy prohibiting abortions in American military facilities should be overturned because it discriminates against U.S. servicewomen and endangers their health and safety, according to a new analysis in the Summer 2010 issue of the Guttmacher Policy Review. At a minimum, Congress should follow the lead of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which earlier this year voted to let active duty women in the military pay out-of-pocket for abortions at U.S. military facilities.

Many servicewomen will face an unintended pregnancy during their military career, but they often confront much steeper hurdles in obtaining abortion care than their civilian counterparts, the analysis finds. The ban on abortions in military facilities is particularly devastating for service members who live overseas and depend on their base hospitals for medical care. If they live in a country where abortion is illegal or otherwise unavailable, they are severely restricted in their ability to access a safe and legal procedure.

“This debate is not about the morality or legality of abortion, but whether women who enlist in the military, and especially those who are living overseas, should be discriminated against as a result,” says Heather Boonstra, author of the analysis. “It’s time that we stop treating women in uniform as second-class citizens by denying them timely access to a legal, Constitutionally protected health care service their civilian counterparts can freely obtain.”

The current ban compromises women’s health and safety, since—by definition—it delays women in having the procedure. Although the risk of serious complications from an abortion is low at any point, it increases dramatically with increased gestational length. The analysis also found that current restrictions fall hardest on the most junior enlisted women, who are the most likely to have an unintended pregnancy.

Boonstra argues that allowing privately funded procedures would be an important step toward restoring full abortion rights to the approximately 200,000 active-duty women in the U.S. military. Under the proposed change, servicewomen would be required to pay for the procedure, including institutional overhead costs, in advance. No taxpayer dollars would be spent on the abortion, and health care providers could opt out of performing or assisting in the procedure. The Senate is expected to pass the provision when it takes up the defense authorization bill later this fall, whereas the House did not take any action with respect to abortion in passing its version of the bill.

“The reproductive health and rights of our military women should not be a political football, but sadly that’s exactly what it has long been,” says Boonstra. “That abortions in military facilities are banned, even when U.S. servicewomen pay out-of-pocket for the procedure, demonstrates just how badly our political system has failed the women who have volunteered to serve our country.”

The analysis also summarizes four decades of political debate and increasingly onerous restrictions on the availability of abortion services at U.S. military medical facilities, starting in the 1970s, when taxpayer-funded abortions at military facilities were available, albeit with some limitations, and arriving at today’s ban on servicewomen using even their own funds to pay for an abortion in military facilities.



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