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Pregnant Servicewomen: The Canaries in the Mine

Alexa Kolbi-Molinas,
Deputy Director, ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project
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December 22, 2009

“Women in uniform today are not just invaluable; they’re irreplaceable.” That’s what now-Secretary of the Army John McHugh stated at his confirmation hearings this July. No doubt Major General Anthony Cucolo III, who commands 22,000 soldiers, including nearly 2000 women, in Northern Iraq, agrees—he just has a funny way of showing it. In November, Maj. Gen. Cucolo issued an order prohibiting his soldiers from, among other things, becoming pregnant or impregnating another soldier. As the Maj. Gen. put it in a recent interview, “The message to my female soldiers is that I need you for the duration. Please think before you act.”

But it’s precisely the Major General’s policy that doesn’t seem so thought through. Although the policy on its face applies to both men and women, the Major General’s message, directed to his female troops alone, not to mention biology, raise serious concerns that the military will fairly enforce the policy.

The pregnant servicewoman is really the canary in the mine here: Inevitably her pregnancy will be revealed and she will be punished. However, the man who impregnated her will only be punished if she turns him in. Already, according to news reports, one woman who has been punished and sent home under the policy has refused to reveal who her partner was. It is reasonable to think that many more servicewomen will refuse to turn in their fellow soldiers, thereby making this an equal opportunity policy in name only.

Moreover, this policy will eviscerate existing Department of Defense policy that protects the anonymity of sexual assault victims while ensuring that they can get the services they need. Of course, Maj. Gen. Cucolo has stated he won’t punish anyone who becomes pregnant as a result of an assault, but under his policy pregnant assault victims will have to publicly come forward in order to avoid punishment.

If we really want to help servicewomen avoid unplanned pregnancies and maintain military readiness, why don’t we ensure that birth control and emergency contraception are readily available to all servicewomen, including those in Iraq and Afghanistan? Currently, Department of Defense policy does not require that emergency contraception be available (it’s optional); and a recent report by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America suggests that, “due to space,” other common forms of birth control are not always available either.

It does a dishonor to the more than 200,000 servicewomen who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan to suggest that they do not take deployment seriously. To guarantee that they can continue to serve on par with men, Maj. Gen. Cucolo should make sure that his servicewomen can access the reproductive health care they need, including contraception and emergency contraception, rather than punishing them for getting pregnant.

The ACLU is interested in hearing from servicewomen, military dependants, and their health care providers about difficulties accessing abortion due to military policies. If you have any information, or would like to share your story with us, please contact us at or 212-549-2633, or write to us at Reproductive Freedom Project, 125 Broad St, 18th Fl., New York, NY, 10004. Any information you provide will be treated as confidential.

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