Even before the US Supreme Court overturned Roe and Wade, service members had difficulty obtaining abortions. Navigating different state laws, trying to get a permit, and figuring out travel arrangements wasn’t easy.
“It was very difficult for me to overcome and jump through the hurdles that I had to start over where I thought I was going to be in the military,” said Air Force One Sharon Arana.
In the year In 2009, Arana became pregnant while attending officer training in Alabama. Fearing the command would learn of the pregnancy, she took the test in a gas station bathroom instead of going to the base clinic.
Arana and her boyfriend finally decided to get a medical abortion, but they couldn’t get an appointment in Alabama because there were few clinics. As they drove to Georgia, they ran into another problem. The couple spent hundreds of dollars on a hotel, medical imaging and testing, but were told Georgia state law required a cooling-off period.
“They said, ‘OK, there’s a three-day waiting period,'” Arana said. “I’m like, ‘I don’t have three days, I have to get back to training.’ So we drove back the next day, and then I graduated that week.”
Arana later had an abortion in New York during a scheduled vacation to visit her family. But she said she doesn’t know what she would have done if it hadn’t been for that vacation.
Those experiences are important to her now that abortion is not protected by federal law. Arana has been telling her story and testifying before Congress, fearing that experiences like hers will become all too common.
“This is directly affecting our Airmen and our families right now,” she said. “None of us asked for this. We don’t get to choose where we live. We can’t choose where we stand. … We have to expect more from here.”
Arana also helped draft a new Defense Department policy that allows service members to take up to three weeks of administrative leave for abortion or maternity care and pays for travel expenses. It gives service members an extra 20 weeks before notifying commanders of their pregnancy. It also restricts health care providers from speaking to commanders.
“The department has heard from service members and their families about the complexities and uncertainties they face in accessing reproductive health,” said Defense Department spokesman Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman.
“The Department’s efforts on reproductive health care not only ensure that service members and their families have the time and flexibility to make individual and personal health care decisions, but also ensure that service members can access care no matter where they are. . They can help alleviate the possibility that you may be forced to take time off work and pay additional out-of-pocket expenses.
According to some advocates, the military has taken critical steps to meet the health needs of soldiers.
“The military has not been a leader in reproductive issues in the past, and to see them taking the needs of service members seriously is a refreshing change, especially from a gender perspective,” said Claire McKinney of the College. A William & Mary professor who studies gender, politics, and reproduction.
To obtain a license, service members simply need to identify their request to their commander as an “uncovered need for reproductive health care.” However, to be reimbursed for travel expenses, they must verify their pregnancy through a medical provider or off-base. Provide details of the clinic where you sought abortion or fertility treatment.
Lori Fenner, director of government relations for the Service Women’s Action Network, said the policy does a good job of balancing soldiers’ privacy with mission requirements — but implementing it won’t be easy.
“There are going to be problems,” Fenner said, “and there are commanders who won’t accept the word or disagree and will do everything they can to cut it short because they believe their mission is the first agenda. But the secretary reminds them that what drives that mission is the health and care of their members.”
Meanwhile, some Republicans are trying to block the policy.
Through the Hyde Amendment and other provisions, Congress prohibits the federal government from paying for abortions unless there are pre-existing conditions of rape, incest, or the life of the mother. Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville argues that paying an Alabama abortion provider to travel violates Hyde’s spirit.
“Secretary Austin’s new abortion policy is immoral and arguably illegal. If he wants to change the law, he has to go through Congress,” he said on the Senate floor.
Republican members of Congress have said they plan to try to make the policy outright illegal. The Department of Defense has proposed legislation that would prevent service members from providing financial support for trips to get abortions.
This story was produced by the American Homefit Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.
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