On Friday, June 24, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, abruptly dismissing 50 years of precedent. Three days later, South Carolina law outlaw abortion after six weeks of pregnancy entered into force. Given the substantial military presence in South Carolina, these draconian legal developments will be felt in the uniformed ranks; indeed, they will affect military communities across the country where access to abortion is also disappearing. The following reveals why and how.
First, let’s make it real by sharing a survivor’s story. In 2015, Sarah*, a Marine, was stationed in South Carolina and was raped by another Marine. She had gone to a bar with friends, drank a single beer and, feeling dizzy and out of control, realized she had been drugged. Another Marine took her back to base; she fainted during the ride.
Sarah woke up with a Marine on top and penetrating her; she lost consciousness again.
Shortly after this attack, Sarah learned that she was pregnant; she quietly obtained an abortion from a local civilian provider. She did not tell anyone, not military supervisors or doctors, that she had been raped.
If Sarah’s ordeal had happened today, her options would have been very different. Unless present-day Sarah chooses to come out with her status as a rape survivor and successfully prove that fact to others – or get her commanding officer’s leave and go to the Closest state with access to abortion – Sarah would be forced to endure her already forced pregnancy and bear her rapist’s child.
How does modern-day Sarah, a warrior in uniform sacrificing so much for our nation, find herself in such a cruel situation? The short answer: Congress and the fierce abortion fights on Capitol Hill that created legislation that has, for decades, penalized female service members, coupled with the overthrow of Roe and the states rush that has resulted to control women’s body.
Due to a long-standing federal government right, military medical providers may perform abortions only if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, or if the pregnancy endangers the life of the mother. All three limited circumstances require certification of medical providers; for example “a physician should note in the patient’s medical record that it is in good faith, based on all available information, that the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest.” The same restrictions apply to military medical insurance, affecting thousands of military families in addition to female service members.
Any service member who requests an abortion outside of these extremely limited circumstances, or who, like Sarah, is unwilling to disclose their rape (or is not believed), must request leave and attend a civilian clinic at their own costs. There may no longer be a clinic in their state. While this legal straitjacket has long suffocated service members deployed or stationed overseas in abortion-restrictive countries, due to Roe’s recent disappearance, a service member stationed in Texas might as well be stationed in Djibouti. or in Iraq. Her access to abortion is mostly just as limited.
This is a serious problem, given that the majority of the largest military bases are now in states where, following Friday’s Supreme Court ruling, abortion will become illegal immediately or very soon, with few exceptions. These include Fort Hood and Fort Bliss in Texas, Fort Campbell in Tennessee and Kentucky, and Forts Benning and Bragg in Georgia, etc.
Congress and the American public need to realize that Sarah’s ordeal is not uncommon. According to the Ministry of Defense, 13,000 female (and 7,500 male) service members were sexually assaulted or raped in fiscal year 2018; 76.1% of victims did not report the crime. These numbers seem to be rising – the rate of rape and sexual assault against female servicemen would have jumped by more than 50% between fiscal year 2016 and 2018, and Again in 2019. In addition, the rate of unintended pregnancy among active duty military is greater than that of the general population (7% of the military against 4.5% in the general population according to the latest figures available). While it’s unclear how many of these pregnancies resulted from rape, data on rates of sexual assault suggest it’s potentially a significant number.
Following the Supreme Court’s decision, our government must act to protect our soldiers. The Pentagon needs to standardize leave policies to better support the military, and Congress needs to roll back longstanding restrictions on abortions performed by the military. Service members”chose to volunteer to sacrifice for their country, but they did not volunteer to sacrifice their reproductive rights.”
*name changed to protect privacy
Rachel E. VanLandingham, Lt. Col., USAF (Retired), Professor of Law, Southwestern Law School and President, National Institute of Military Justice.Samantha S. Kubek, Assistant Law Clinic Professor and Lead Attorney, Robert W. Entenmann Veterans Law Clinic, Hofstra Law School