Pentagon officials and military personnel told lawmakers Friday that the Supreme Court’s decision ending a constitutional right to abortion has upended reproductive care for U.S. troops, warning that ensuing state-level bans are expected to worsen what is already a dire recruiting crisis.
Additionally, the flurry of restrictive abortion laws enacted in Republican-led states that house U.S. military facilities, including anticipated efforts to bar residents from traveling elsewhere for such treatment, has undermined mission readiness by creating family planning obstacles where none existed for nearly 50 years, the panel of witnesses told members of a House Armed Services subcommittee.
“We have concerns that some service members may choose to leave the military altogether because they may be stationed in states with restrictive reproductive health laws,” Gil Cisneros, the Pentagon’s chief of personnel and readiness, said in prepared remarks.
“This leads us to our concerns about recruitment,” he said, as the Defense Department faces dramatic shortfalls bringing in new troops and with women already representing a far smaller portion of the force than men. “We know this decision will have some type of impact.”
The Supreme Court’s decision last month to reverse Roe v. Wade’s decades-old protections fundamentally altered the abortion landscape across the country. Roughly a dozen states now have new restrictions on the procedure, with more looming, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights.
There are more than 100 military installations in Southern and Midwestern states with total abortion bans, said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who characterized the fast-moving developments as “incentive for women not to serve” and “almost an insidious effort to encourage women to leave the military.”
In July, the Air Force clarified its rules allowing airmen to seek abortions without requiring preapproval from their commanders for the requisite time off. The Army enacted a similar measure this spring.
House Democrats have attempted to make those policies universal throughout the armed forces by including a provision in the Defense Department’s funding and authorization bill for next year. The proposal faces an uncertain fate in the Senate, which recently began work on its version of the legislation.
But so far, such policies do not specifically address cultural tendencies inherent to the institution, where men greatly outnumber women and the political consensus has historically leaned conservative. Women in uniform, who make up about 20% of the 1.3 million member active-duty force, have said reproductive care carries a stigma, with some leaders viewing the necessary time off and related follow-on care as an unwanted distraction.
The policies do not outline any punitive measures for commanders who may try to make it unduly difficult for subordinates to seek abortions by denying leave or rejecting requests to travel to a civilian provider hundreds of miles away. Redress would have to be sought by going over their heads to senior leaders, defense officials have said, which presents additional challenges.
The Army, which is the largest branch of service, intends to implement “parenting, pregnancy and postpartum training” in pre-command courses for its leaders, said Lt. Col. Joey Payton, a spokesperson.
It remains to be seen whether a Republican administration would prioritize such educational initiatives for military commanders. Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., the sole GOP participant in the hearing room Friday, dismissed an idea raised during the testimony that service members could choose their duty assignments based on state laws. Such a notion, he said, risked politicizing the ranks.
Gallagher did not ask Cisneros any questions.
Federal law prohibits military health facilities from providing abortion unless the pregnant person’s life is in danger, or unless the pregnancy was caused by rape or incest. Annually, that happens in fewer than two dozen cases on average, according to Defense Department data. It’s unclear how many service members seek such treatment privately. Those who do must pay their expenses out of pocket, Cisneros said. For many, it can require traveling hundreds of miles and taking several days off from work.
Air Force Maj. Theresa A. Mozzillo told lawmakers Friday that a pregnancy early in her career was an immediate cause for panic. “I was a female airman in a male-dominated environment,” she said, “and the idea of discussing this personal information with my leadership was out of the question. . . . My dream of a successful military career was falling apart before I even had a chance to get started.”
Mozzillo said she had no social support network and little savings. Her assignment in Missouri, one of the most restrictive states for abortion rights, meant she had to travel to the Illinois border for the procedure. A friend drove her on a Saturday to avoid having to seek formal approval from a commander, and she went back to work that Monday, she said.
Air Force Maj. Sharon Arana told lawmakers that her contraception failed while in officer training in Alabama. Already a single mother, Arana and her boyfriend decided to seek an abortion. They traveled to Georgia, which required a three-day process for the procedure. Fearing repercussions for missing work, Arana said she returned to finish training and later sought an abortion in New York during scheduled leave.
She sought post-abortion care at her duty station in Texas, where a nurse vowed to not record the visit to keep her out of trouble, she said. “I was never offered any support or follow-on care at the clinic,” Arana said. “Instead, I was sent on my way back . . . without my pregnancy termination ever documented in my medical records.”
Jacqueline Lamme, a Navy gynecologist and obstetrician, told lawmakers that making it harder for troops to plan for their families, including forcing unplanned pregnancies to term, can be corrosive to military missions.
An unplanned pregnancy can remove a service member from their unit for up to two years, she said in written remarks, harming chances for promotion or assignments that are valuable to career advancement.
“Unplanned pregnancies may occur,” Lamme said, “and the lack of full-scope contraceptive options has negative effects both on the service woman and on overall force readiness.”
The Pentagon has directed the establishment of walk in clinics with free contraceptive services, and defense health officials will remove co-pays for such services, Cisneros said. But major concerns remain.
“In the same way that some women would not take a civilian job in a state that severely restricts their options for reproductive health care, so too could some potential recruits feel deterred from joining the military for fear of being stationed at base in such states,” Cisneros said, noting that personnel retention is equally worrisome. Required moves to jurisdictions without access to reproductive care could deter women from remaining in the military “because of the risks it may pose to their privacy and health care choices,” he said.
The Pentagon is experiencing significant recruiting challenges as it is, officials said, expressing worry that a surge in unanticipated departures would only exacerbate the problem. The Army, in particular, faces its greatest shortfall since the Vietnam era, as leaders contend with low unemployment and a dwindling percentage of Americans qualified to serve.