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MARCH Onward for our Military Women!

Elayne Weiss,
Washington Legislative Office
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April 26, 2013

Enactment of last year’s National Defense Authorization Act brought about a long overdue and welcome change on the military health care front by allowing military women and dependents to receive insurance coverage for abortion in cases of rape or incest. But the work to ensure that servicewomen’s reproductive health needs are met is not nearly complete.

That’s why we applaud the introduction in the Senate of the Military Access to Reproductive Care and Health (MARCH) for Military Women Act. Sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and 14 other stalwart supporters of our military women and families, the bill would allow servicewomen to use their own private funds to access abortion care on military treatment facilities. Earlier in the month, Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) introduced a House companion bill, cosponsored by 40 representatives.

The bill, if enacted, would change the current law that prohibits military facilities from providing abortion except in very limited circumstances (i.e. where the pregnancy results from rape or incest or where the woman’s life is endangered).

Overturning the current ban would have a real impact on our servicewomen’s lives. Because of the ban, a servicewoman who is stationed overseas and needs an abortion is forced either to attempt to obtain care in a local medical facility in the country in which she is stationed or travel to a medical facility in the United States or in another country. Even in countries where abortion is legal, local health facilities are sometimes inadequate, unsafe, or lack trained medical personnel. Servicewomen who must travel to obtain abortion care are required to clear the leave time with their superiors, forcing them to disclose information about private medical decisions. Their superior officers may delay or refuse to grant leave even though each week of delay increases the potential health risks.

Faced with these odds, some servicewomen have chosen to self-abort, running the risk of severe hemorrhages and putting their future fertility, and even their lives, on the line. Other women have committed suicide. It’s not hyperbole to say that overturning the ban on privately-funded abortions on military bases can save lives.

Getting rid of this ideological and harmful ban also makes good military sense. When servicewomen are forced to travel back to the United States in order to obtain safe abortions, it not only hurts their military careers by reducing the length of their deployment, but it also hurts the members’ units. Losing personnel while operationally deployed has a direct impact on the ability of the unit to complete its mission, and there is much research to show that replacing members of a military unit during wartime has a detrimental effect on unit cohesion.

Even the Department of Defense supports repeal of the ban. In 1999, DoD said “it is unfair to female service members, particularly those assigned to overseas locations, to be denied their constitutional right to the full range of reproductive health care.” And in 2011, DoD reaffirmed its support.

And let us not forget that, even though our military is fighting the scourge of sexual assault, rapes and pregnancies caused by rapes do occur. Lifting the ban on private funding of abortion of military bases would allow a servicewoman whose pregnancy is caused by rape to get the care she may need without having to report that she was raped.

Overturning this ban is the right thing to do, and Senator Gillibrand and her Senate colleagues are true champions for our women warriors for introducing this critical piece of legislation to restore comprehensive reproductive health care to the women who sacrifice so much.

The women who serve our country and protect our freedoms deserve so much more of our compassion and regard for their health.

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