Some 80,000 active-duty women are stationed in states with abortion restrictions or bans. That’s 40% of active-duty service women in the continental United States, according to research sponsored by the US Department of Defense (DoD) and released in September. Nearly all (95%) are of reproductive age. Annually, an estimated 2573 to 4126 women have an abortion, but just a handful of those are done at military treatment facilities. Moreover, roughly 275,000 DoD civilians also live in states with a full ban or extreme restrictions on access to abortion. Of those, more than 81,000 are women. Nearly 43% have no access to abortion or drastically abridged access.
The recent Supreme Court ruling in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization has created uncertainty for those women and their families, and potential legal and financial risk for the health care practitioners who would provide reproductive care, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in an October 20, 2022 memo.
Therefore, he has directed the DoD to take “all appropriate action… as soon as possible to ensure that our service members and their families can access reproductive health care and our health care providers can operate effectively.”
Among the actions he has approved: Paying for travel to reproductive health care—essentially, making it more feasible for members to cross state lines. Service members, he noted in the memo, are often required to travel or move to meet staffing, operational, and training requirements. The “practical effects,” he said, are that significant numbers of service members and their families “may be forced to travel greater distances, take more time off from work, and pay more out-of-pocket expenses to receive reproductive health care.”
Those effects, Austin said, “qualify as unusual, extraordinary, hardship, or emergency circumstances for service members and their dependents and will interfere with our ability to recruit, retain, and maintain the readiness of a highly qualified force.”
Women, who comprise 17% of the active-duty force, are the fastest-growing subpopulation in the military. For the past several years, according to the DoD research report, the military services have been “deliberately recruiting women”—who perform essential duties in every sector: health care and electrical and mechanical equipment repair, for example.