“There Are No Coat Hangers in Iraq”

By Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project

In light of ongoing efforts to restrict women’s access to abortion in health care reform, it is sometimes easy to forget that many women already face nearly insurmountable obstacles to obtaining abortion care. This is particularly true for the more than 200,000 servicewomen currently serving in the armed forces, as well as military dependents. These women face not only a funding ban, which prohibits military insurance from covering the cost of any abortion, except for those necessary to save a woman’s life, but a ban on using military facilities, as well: Even if they pay with their own money, and no federal funds are used, servicewomen and dependents cannot obtain abortions in military treatment facilities, unless they disclose that the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest.

A recent article by Kathryn Joyce, Military Abortion Ban: Female Soldiers Not Protected by Constitution They Defend, which tells the story of a marine named Amy*, puts the plight of military women into stunning focus. Amy was stationed in Fallujah when she realized she was pregnant. Fearful of being ostracized by her male comrades, Amy did not report that her pregnancy was the result of rape. But after her attempt at a self-abortion, using herbs she purchased over the Internet and a sanitized cleaning rod for her rifle, went horribly wrong, she finally went to a military hospital. Shortly thereafter, she was charged under Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice for having violated the prohibition on having sex in a war zone. She was fined $500 and given a suspended rank reduction.

Most of us think that unsafe and illegal abortions, at least for American women, have been relegated to the pre-Roe era. But this is not so for the hundreds of thousands of women who have volunteered to serve in our military, and for the wives and daughters of soldiers stationed abroad. As the debates over health care continue, we will likely hear about lawmakers’ efforts to maintain the “status quo” when it comes to abortion funding. We would do well to remember what this “status quo” all too often looks like.

*not her real name

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 rfp@aclu.org 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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For more information or to schedule an interview with contact press@rhrealitycheck.org.

  • kate-ranieri

    Alternate news sources have made substantiated claims that rape happens at an obscene rate among the military, paramilitary (think Blackwater) and allied corporations (think Halliburton). Also reported is the rise in brothels disguised as hair salon or some other business. What this suggests is that sex is difficult to control (big surpise) and worst of all, that illicit sex is handled with deliberate indifference. It’s like prison rape. We know it happens, but . . .

    If this female soldier was raped, how many other female soldiers and female civilians have been raped? War zone or not, what about the male soldier? Was he charged with Article 92, fined and given a suspended rank?

    What happened to this young woman is a disgrace. For all the claims of honor and patriotism, the military failed on several accounts. They failed this woman by allowing an environment were comraderie overrules safety. They failed to provide appropriate reproductive health services for this woman. And they failed to serve justice if they didn’t charge the criminal who raped her.

  • crowepps

    Kolbi-Molinas says the ACLU has received reports about commanding officers attempting to interfere with women taking leave to obtain abortions. Even for those who are able to obtain an abortion off-base, says Bethany Niebauer, a military spouse and writer at RH Reality Check, the lack of medical privacy in the military means women often return to social shaming “for making a choice with which her superiors might disagree.”


    A General Accounting Office report on the issue in 2002 found that the policy was a humiliation for servicewomen, who must seek travel approval from commanding officers, many of whom “have not been adequately trained about the importance of women’s basic health care.” Furthermore, servicewomen may be uneasy with the appearance of requesting special treatment, or may face commanding officers who disapprove of abortion—a serious concern for women reliant on these officers for career advancement.


    Vicki Saporta, President of the National Abortion Federation, says that military women seeking abortions face a no-win situation. “If you’re a woman in the military, you’re going to have to obtain a leave to get the care you need. If you’re honest about why you need that care, you put your military career in jeopardy. If you’re not honest, then you put your military career in jeopardy.”

    In addition, Kennedy noted, throughout those years she encountered Army doctors who displayed anti-abortion posters, “creating a climate of intimidation for anyone who might want to discuss what is a legal option.”


    “Since the doctors are officers and far outrank enlisted soldiers,” Kennedy wrote, “and since the soldiers have no way to choose which doctor they see on sick call, it was only with good luck that a young soldier might be seen by someone who would treat her decision with the respect she deserved.” Many do, says Kolbi-Molinas, citing military medical doctors who later became abortion providers and who spoke to the ACLU of their distress, either at not being able to provide abortion care to women in need, or at treating women who arrived septic from back-alley abortions.


    But their hands are tied. The National Abortion Federation reported the comments of Dr. Jeffrey Jensen, a naval medic who witnessed many complications from unsafe abortions performed on servicewomen in the Philippines. “Imagine having the tools and training available to help these women, as I did,” he wrote, “and being forced to deny those services.”



  • invalid-0

    I read article about Kathryn Joyce, it is the real shame when people protecting the country, remain defenceless!
    Excuse me for possible errors in the text, I from Russia.