The Senate Gives Up on Military Women’s Access to Health Care


By Allie Bohm, ACLU Center for Democracy; Vania Leveille, ACLU Washington Legislative Office; and Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project

On Veterans’ Day, we told you that Congress had the historic opportunity to overturn the ban on privately-funded abortions on military bases.

Overturning the ban would have had a real impact on our servicewomen’s lives. Because of the ban, women who are stationed overseas who need abortions are forced either to attempt to obtain care in a local medical facility in the country in which they are stationed or to 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 women 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 is simply not hyperbole to say that overturning the ban on privately-funded abortions on military bases would have saved lives.

It also would have increased troop readiness, a concern that cannot possibly be too far from the military’s mind as we engage in armed conflicts abroad. 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 combat tours, which is the type of experience the military looks for when considering promotions and assignment choices, 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.

Moreover, overturning the ban on privately-funded abortions on military bases is the right thing to do. When women sign up to serve our country, they should not be forced to give up the very constitutional rights they put their lives on the line to defend. And a military wife or daughter shouldn’t be denied access to health care services that civilian wives and daughters have.

So, what happens now? Congress has agreed to consider a stripped down defense authorization bill that omits this provision. That bill will be voted on in the coming days. Unfortunately, military women have to wait at least another year. There isn’t the political will, the votes or the time to do a standalone bill this year like the one used for Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. But be assured that the ACLU will continue to fight. This isn’t the end of our work; it’s only the beginning.

We appreciate all of the hard work that you’ve put into overturning the ban on privately funded abortions on military bases, and we hope you will stick with us as this fight continues. Our military women need your support.

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

To schedule an interview with ACLU please contact Communications Director Rachel Perrone at rachel@rhrealitycheck.org.