Amid celebrations over the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson, which overturned Roe v. Wade and ended federally guaranteed access to abortion, the cheering masses have dismissed how the ruling hurt members of the armed forces. Those praising Dobbs ignore how the decision places service women at risk and exacerbates the worries of women who already mistrust a military justice system with a questionable record of protecting them. The issue is easy to ignore if one sets aside reports regarding problems like sexual assault and extremism in the military. However, the realities faced by service members are evident to those in uniform.
For example, in 2010, I was a newly enlisted soldier. Inexperienced and clueless about the political attitudes of service members, I asked for permission to travel to Washington, D.C., for the “Rally to Restore Sanity And/Or Fear,” hosted by comedians John Stewart and Stephen Colbert. In response, the approving authority asked, “Are you some kind of ----ng liberal?” I was taunted for my political leanings for the rest of my time with that unit.
My situation was trivial but — in light of Dobbs — suggests an important question: In a military culture where being “liberal” triggers the ire of leaders, can we expect servicewomen to walk into their commander’s office asking for permission for an abortion?
Based on conversations with female superiors, peers, and subordinates, the answer is a resounding no. In a male-dominated and largely conservative organization, women are concerned about stigmas associated with actions not aligned with the moral beliefs of other service members. Simply put, many would be scared to come forward and say, “I need an abortion.”
An announcement by Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Gil Cisneros attempted — but failed — to address such concerns. In a Memorandum for senior Pentagon Leadership, he said, “the Supreme Court’s decision does not prohibit the Department from continuing to perform covered abortions, consistent with federal law. There will be no interruption to this care.”
This memorandum did not confront the realities of military culture and mistakenly assumed service women can easily approach their superiors regarding this difficult choice.
Notably, Cisneros only addressed “covered abortions” where “the life of the mother would be endangered if the fetus were carried to term, or (where) the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.” This is almost certainly due to the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funding from paying for the termination of many pregnancies. This means that — despite the Pentagon’s reassurances to the contrary — Dobbs is interrupting service women’s access to care. Those needing abortions not under these stipulations will now be forced to seek them outside military facilities and pay out-of-pocket.
Post-Dobbs, more than 100 military installations, including many of the most populated military bases in the nation, are within states like Texas, Kentucky, and Florida, where a woman’s right to an abortion is at risk. Military members do not choose their duty stations, so the Department of Defense is forcing service women to live where abortions are unavailable and leaving them in a situation where they must pursue other potentially risky options. This threat extends to the wives and daughters of service members who move from installation to installation based on the needs of the military and rely on military health insurance programs.
The Air Force and Army may claim to have addressed this issue in “Air Force Guidance Memorandum to AFI 44-102″ and “Army Directive 2022-06 (Parenthood, Pregnancy, and Postpartum).” However, these documents essentially just preclude commanders from having pre-approval authority for pregnancy terminations. They do nothing to mitigate the excessive distances service women may need to trek to obtain abortions and do not address the considerable costs of traveling and attaining the procedure.
If nothing else, the military’s failure to defend its service women’s access to abortions will diminish its ability to recruit women who would be forced to move from states where abortion is protected. However, more realistically, the current situation presents a clear danger to the health of our nation’s fighting force. Many service women will lie about why they are requesting leave. In severe scenarios, those without accumulated time off, those afraid to tell judgmental command teams about their situations, or those without the financial resources to travel, may feel forced to make questionable, potentially dangerous decisions.
To ensure service women — and female dependents — have access to safe medical care and assuage understandable concerns, Congress, the DoD, and the White House must act. Protections for abortions on military installations must be clarified and codified, potentially by passing a military exception to the Hyde Amendment. Further, it must be unequivocally established that leaders discriminating against females who come forward regarding abortions will be dealt with immediately and severely.
Without such actions, these women will continue to be at risk, and their confidence in their chains of command regarding important medical issues will erode. They serve our nation. They deserve better.
Army Staff Sgt. Zej Moczydlowski is a special operations combat medic who has served in the military for more than a decade on both active and reserve status. He is also a law student at New York Law School. These comments are his personal opinion and do not reflect the official position of the Department of the Army or the DoD.
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