Reviews | Overthrowing “Roe” would be disastrous for the US military
If I hadn’t had access to abortion, the assault would have ended my career and derailed my life. Should roe deer be reversed and abortion access restricted for female service members across the United States, military preparedness would be directly affected.
Women make up 14.4% of our active duty military and approximately 18% of our Reserve and National Guard. Rape in the military is widespread: in 2018, the Department of Defense reported that around 20,500 military personnel were victims of sexual assault, up from 14,900 two years earlier.
Many states have trigger laws prohibiting or criminalizing abortion that will go into effect as soon as roe deer is overturned — a likely outcome given the Supreme Court’s draft opinion that was leaked earlier this month.
This will immediately affect active duty service members, who cannot choose exactly which state they serve in and who do not have the freedom to travel to other states without an approved leave “voucher” in the chain of command – a command that is notoriously bad at dealing with the consequences of sexual assault. Of the 20,500 service members sexually assaulted in 2018, only a third reported the assault, and 43% of those who did said it was a negative experience.
Military leaders are often reluctant to have sexual assaults associated with their command – not to mention that the rapist is often in the chain of command. This leads to situations in which it is dangerous to report a rape. And if there is no safe space to report rape, there is certainly no safe space to seek permission to travel for abortion care.
Potential workarounds such as mail-order abortion drugs would most likely be unworkable. When I served, the mail passed through the chain of command and there were inspections to prevent the receipt of contraband. Although I don’t know if the abortion pills received in the mail today would be confiscated, I do know that I would never have ordered them for fear of being arrested and disciplined.
When I tried to report my rapist, I was asked the same questions so many victims have heard before: What were you wearing? were you flirting? Are you arguing with your boyfriend? A senior officer told me I could lose my prestigious nuclear job. He said I would be fired for filing a false report and court-martialed for adultery because my rapist was married.
“Let’s just say that’s what it was,” he said. “Bad judgment on your part.”
I walked away thinking it was my fault – a lie that took over a decade of therapy to undo – and I was terrified to tell anyone.
There was no morning after pill to prevent pregnancy back then. But when I found out I was pregnant, I was able to access abortion care at a nearby Planned Parenthood, as well as a referral to counselling. The trauma of the rape almost cost me my life. The access to care I received afterwards saved me.
Now imagine if I hadn’t had that care. Imagine if multitudes of women in the military couldn’t access such care.
In a world without roe deer, service members without immediate access to abortion care would be trapped. A military member who is raped and becomes pregnant could essentially be forced by the government to carry her pregnancy to term and give birth to her rapist’s baby.
There are concrete steps U.S. officials can take now to help service members who may need abortions.
First, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin should create a policy granting leave for reproductive health-related travel, and President Biden should ask the Department of Defense to put that policy into practice.
Second, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (DN.Y.) is expected to introduce the Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA) – sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (DN.Y.) and supported by senators including Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) — to a floor vote. The bill proposes taking the decision to prosecute rapes and assaults outside of the chain of command, which would give active-duty service members a safe space to report.
The MJIA has 67 bipartisan sponsors. But he was killed when Sen. Jack Reed (DR.I.) insisted that he be included in the National Defense Authorization Act, where he was gutted. Gillibrand continued to press for a vote on the full proposal and was repeatedly blocked.
This lack of protections is unacceptable. Forcing service members with unwanted pregnancies to secretly seek abortion care – or carry a pregnancy to term – would be inhumane. If the United States values women’s military service, it must find a way to ensure they have a choice.