Limiting the Rights of Women Who Serve

By Elizabeth Arzt, NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia Communications Fellow 

Veterans Day is a time when we honor our nation’s active service members and veterans. This day also serves as a reminder that the United States continues to deny American servicewomen the vital reproductive healthcare services that they so desperately need.

According to the National Institutes of Health, 97% of active duty servicewomen are of reproductive age, yet they receive inaccurate reproductive counseling, limited access to contraception, and insufficient insurance coverage for abortion. These inadequate services result in a 50% higher rate of unintended pregnancy in military servicewomen than the general population.

Supposedly Tricare, the healthcare plan for active-duty service members and veterans, covers reproductive counseling prior to deployment. However, in a 2012 survey among servicewomen, the National Institutes of Health found routine reports of women receiving inaccurate information about contraceptives. Women reported that they were told they were ineligible for long acting reversible contraception, such as intra uterine devices, because they had never carried a pregnancy to term – a completely distorted claim. What’s even more shocking, servicewomen were falsely informed that sexual contact of any kind was forbidden, rendering contraception totally unnecessary.

Tricare does cover most commonly used forms of contraception, but there are obstacles to using contraception while overseas. It’s difficult to schedule a time to take a daily pill when traveling across time zones, harsh environmental conditions make it difficult to use a contraceptive patch and obtaining refills of the same pill can be challenging.

After overcoming misguided counseling and high hurdles to contraceptive access, military servicewomen and veterans face strict federal rules banning insurance coverage of abortion. Tricare excludes abortion coverage for active duty service members and veterans, except in narrow circumstances. As if options were not already severely limited, Congress has altogether banned abortion procedures from being conducted on military bases. It’s critical to understand that service members depend on military hospitals for all of their healthcare needs.  Once deployed, women often do not have access to abortion care because they are stationed in hostile or remote areas with few functional clinics and poorly trained personnel. These restrictions endanger the health of American women in uniform. A servicewoman facing unintended pregnancy has just as much right to an abortion as any other American woman.

Now that Veterans Day has passed and we have thanked our active duty service members and veterans for their valuable service, this year let’s make sure those platitudes don’t ring hollow. We can show our servicewomen and veterans the dignity they deserve by supporting efforts that would abolish these restrictions on abortion and grant them the right to end a pregnancy safely.

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