First study of US military women's experiences seeking abortion care during overseas deployment shows barriers that impact women’s careers and health

July 2011

July 10, 2011 — Between 19,000 and 23,000 US servicewomen have unintended pregnancies each year, but little is known about their experiences, particularly during deployment. In the first study to investigate US servicewomen’s experiences seeking abortion during deployment, researchers at Ibis Reproductive Health found that US military women and dependents face significant barriers when trying to access abortion care, including legal and logistical impediments to services in the country where they are based, and difficulties accessing abortion elsewhere due to fear of negative career impacts, confidentiality concerns, and the narrow timeframe for early abortion. With no perceived alternatives, some women reported considering unsafe methods to terminate the pregnancy themselves. The study results are reported in the July-August, 2011, issue of Women’s Health Issues.

Current law prohibits abortions for US military women and dependents at military facilities in most cases, even if women pay for the procedure themselves. The implications of these abortion restrictions are most salient for women deployed overseas, who have few or no safe abortion options without leaving their deployment. 

Researchers, led by Dr. Daniel Grossman, Senior Associate at Ibis Reproductive Health, examined the de-identified consultation data and user queries from 130 US military women and dependents stationed overseas between 2005 and 2009 who were seeking information on abortion from an online source. Grossman and colleagues analyzed information about women’s pregnancy circumstances, reasons for choosing abortion, and experiences seeking services during deployment.

“In our research, women with an unintended pregnancy had a strong desire to complete their tour of duty and continue serving their country, and they did not want to interrupt their service by returning home because of the pregnancy,” Grossman said. “Beyond this, their reasons for seeking abortion care were similar to those of most US women: because it’s the wrong time in their life to have a child, because they don’t have the financial resources to support a child, because they’re worried the pregnancy will adversely affect their career, or because they were raped, among other reasons.” 

The majority of women in the study were stationed in countries where abortion is prohibited. In Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, abortion is banned except to save the life of the woman. Women also said they were unable to travel in-country to access care off-base due to combat operations or other unsafe conditions. Many women, some of whom had been raped, reported feeling “desperate” because they did not have safe abortion options through the military or in the country where they were stationed.

“A woman’s only option to access safe abortion care may be to take personal leave to return home and pay for the service herself,” Grossman said. “As the women in this study described, this makes it difficult for a woman to keep her decision confidential, it can hurt her career, and it can delay accessing services.” In some cases, with no perceived alternatives, women reported considering unsafe methods to terminate the pregnancy themselves.

“The findings of this study give voice to US servicewomen deployed overseas who have faced an unintended pregnancy and had to confront the reality of not having safe or confidential abortion options,” says Kate Grindlay, co-author and a Project Manager at Ibis Reproductive Health. “Their stories show very clearly that the needs of women in the US military are not being met under current policies.” In June of this year, Congresswoman Louise Slaughter (NY) and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (NY) introduced the MARCH for Military Women Act, which would lift the statutory ban that denies US servicewomen coverage for abortion care in cases of rape or incest and prevents women in the military from using private funds to access abortion services at US military facilities. “This bill would protect servicewomen’s health and careers, enable them to continue the job they were enlisted to do, and would provide the comprehensive health care that US military women need and deserve,” said Grindlay.

This research was supported by a grant from The Wallace A. Gerbode Foundation. 

Grindlay K, Yanow S, Jelinska K, Gomperts R, Grossman D. Abortion restrictions in the US military: Voices from women deployed overseas. Women's Health Issues. July 2011; 21(4):259-264.