12/11/2010 11:17 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Protect the Reproductive Health of Women in Our Military

As we face the waning days of the 111th Congress and legislators scramble to designate funds for national defense, a little-known provision in the Senate version of the authorization bill would allow a servicewoman to obtain abortion care at a military facility. This would be a reversal of current policy.

My colleague Dr. Dan Grossman, Assistant Clinical Professor in reproductive health at the University of California, San Francisco recently wrote a a post in RH Reality Check on studies being conducted on the reproductive health needs of women in the military by Ibis Reproductive Health, where he also works.

He notes the difficulties a woman deployed overseas has in obtaining the most effective method of birth control or abortion care:

In an online survey, about one-quarter of women who had been deployed overseas reported difficulties obtaining a birth control method at military facilities. Women complained of problems making an appointment with a clinician to obtain contraception, the lack of availability of certain methods, an inability to get enough supplies at one time, as well as concerns about the confidentiality of services...

But the biggest challenge is faced by military women deployed abroad who find themselves with an unintended pregnancy. Federal policy under U.S. Code 1093 states that no Department of Defense facility or funds may be used for abortion except when the life of the pregnant woman is at risk. If a pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, the abortion may be performed at a military facility, but the woman must pay for it out of pocket. Despite these latter exceptions, and the known high rates of sexual assault against servicewomen, very few abortions take place at military facilities...

The ban on abortion care at military facilities is particularly difficult for women deployed in active combat zones, where their mobility is severely limited.

Or in places where abortion may be mostly banned -- such as Iraq and Afghanistan; places where there isn't an option to get safe abortion care outside of the base.

It is disconcerting to hear that a woman serving our country who is facing unintended pregnancy would have to make the decision about whether or not to end her pregnancy based on where she is deployed, or whether the has the money and ability to fly home. A woman serving in our military, or any woman, should be able to make that decision based on what is best for her health and her circumstances. As Dr. Grossman argues:

[W]hen a woman in the military is faced with an unintended pregnancy, she should have the same access to care and support as American women not in the military, regardless of whether she decides to continue the pregnancy or not. Supporting the troops means supporting their reproductive rights as well.

We may not all feel the same way about abortion, but let's remain firm in our commitment that personal reproductive health decisions are best left to a woman and her family -- and this must include a woman serving in the military.