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Thursday, April 18, 2024

America’s Armed Forces Are Weaker Without Roe

By overturning Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court has not only taken a wrecking ball to reproductive rights, it has dealt a blow to military readiness. America will be less secure as a result.

Even before today’s ruling, abortion services for active duty troops and their families were limited: The military provided such care only if the pregnancy was a result of sexual assault or threatened the life of the pregnant person, and only if the base had services available. Many don’t. Service members and their families who require abortion care for any other reason had to go off-base and pay out of pocket for these services.

As of today, tens of thousands of military troops and their families are now stationed in states where abortion is banned and criminalized. There are no longer local off-base options for these members of our military and their families. As a result, service members who need abortion care for any other reason will have to travel through multiple states on their own dime just to get to a state where abortion is legal.

This inflicts a significant cost, not only to individual service members, but to the military as a whole. First off, many more service members will be forced to take even longer leaves from their posts to seek health care. And those who require emergency surgical abortion services not available on their military installations may not be able to reach a health care facility in time, threatening their very lives.

This ruling also jeopardizes service members’ privacy. Those who wish to terminate a pregnancy or who must do so out of medical necessity will be forced to tell their superiors in order to seek leave, making a private decision public.

Worse, if a service member in a state where abortion is now illegal needs an abortion for any reason other than sexual assault or direct danger to their life, they will now have to request leave in order to travel out of state to get care. Their fate will therefore be determined by their immediate superiors in the ranks, who may have personal views on the issue of abortion. This means that a member of the United States military may be forced to carry a pregnancy to term simply because their commanding officer does not approve their leave request.

The ripple effects of this ruling are also likely to impact the culture around reporting sexual assault, an ongoing crisis in the military. In recent years, the Department of Defense has attempted to destigmatize reporting and encourage service members who have been assaulted to come forward. While in the Marines, I served as a Uniformed Victim Advocate, someone entrusted with helping service members who experienced sexual assault access services and file an NCIS report—the equivalent of a police report in the military—if they wished to do so.

Abortion was the law of the land during my time in service, and even then, many service members chose not to report their assaults because they feared retribution from members of their units or chain of command. According to a 2018 survey of active duty service members by the Department of Defense, 38 percent of servicewomen who reported their assaults experienced professional retaliation afterward. Now, with abortion criminalized in many states where troops are currently stationed, service members who can access abortion on their base will be understandably fearful to do so, making them even less likely to report an assault.

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In a perfect world, all of this would be resolved with a law codifying the right to abortion that would pass and be signed today. Short of that, the Biden administration has a few options.

First, the DOD can take immediate steps to ensure all of our service members and their families have access to reproductive care. The military must institute and enforce clear directives that allow troops and their families to take leave in order to access abortion care, no matter where they are stationed, in a way that maintains their privacy. One option could be a DOD policy that allows military doctors to prescribe convalescent leave to any service member seeking an abortion, for any reason, which would authorize them time to travel out of state to seek abortion services. Still, the service member would have to pay for the expenses out of pocket, since military insurance cannot reimburse for abortion services unrelated to rape, incest, or imminent death of the pregnant person.

The DOD’s hands are tied when it comes to providing comprehensive abortion services on bases because the Hyde Amendment prevents federal funds from being spent on any abortion except in cases of rape, incest, and when the life of the mother is in danger. In those situations, despite the Court’s ruling, it will still be possible for women to receive an abortion on bases where it’s offered, but many bases and installations do not have the proper facilities. Lawmakers must therefore reconsider whether the Hyde Amendment, and a ban on comprehensive abortion services on DOD facilities, is consistent with military readiness. Politicians may not be motivated to protect reproductive rights, but the threat of a weakened Army, Marines, Navy, Space Force, and Air Force could spur them into action. After all, these laws are significantly greater risks to our national security today than they were yesterday.

Additionally, the Department of Veterans Affairs, which is not subject to Hyde, should immediately conduct a full review of the regulations that govern its own restrictions on abortion care. Secretary Denis McDonough may have the authority to overturn the existing regulation and begin providing abortion care to VA patients. The VA has a recent history of rewriting its own regulations—it now provides gender-affirming care, once banned, to VA patients.

Combined, these measures may restore some semblance of the right to choose for Americans who put their lives on the line for our rights. It may help mitigate the effects of the Supreme Court’s decision on veterans, those still in uniform, and their families. But it will never be enough. Ultimately, only the full restoration of reproductive rights will make things right.

As veterans, we served our country in defense of freedom. We will not be silent as the freedom to make our own choices about our bodies is taken away here at home. We will not stop fighting until reproductive rights are fully restored for all our troops and for all Americans. The safety of our nation depends on it.

WIRED Opinion publishes articles by outside contributors representing a wide range of viewpoints. Read more opinions here, and see our submission guidelines here. Submit an op-ed at opinion@wired.com.

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