New York Democratic Congresswoman Louise Slaughter and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand have proposed legislation to provide federal funding for abortions for U.S. military women. Their idea is to cover the cost of abortions in cases of rape, incest, or when the servicewoman’s life is endangered by the pregnancy. In reality, the incidence of such situations is low, so the drive to federally fund abortions in these cases would appear to be about something else. Perhaps it’s really about opening a door to funding abortions in other situations, and potentially compelling military doctors to perform a procedure they may not wish to perform.
Of the 1.4 million members of our Armed Forces, approximately 200,000 are women, or 14% (significantly underrepresented considering about 51% of Americans are female). In 2009, there were 2,670 reported cases of sexual assault in the military (defined as rape, nonconsensual sodomy and wrongful sexual contact). Assuming all victims were female, this represents about 1.3% of the women who serve. Of course, not all sexual assaults result in pregnancy, and while the number that did is unknown, it is likely to be small. So what’s the problem that Slaughter and Gillibrand wish to solve with the legislation they have suggested?
The issue of abortions in the U.S. military has been around for some time, and it’s had its ups and downs over the years as politicians on both sides of the debate have battled it out. Although heavily slanted in the pro-abortion direction, the Guttmacher Institute has captured the history of the issue well in a 2010 study. Accepting for a moment that servicewomen have the “right” to an abortion, then the debate boils down to two questions:
- Who pays for the abortion (federal funds or private funds)?
- Who performs the abortion (off-base civilian – and potentially foreign – doctors, or on-base military doctors in military hospitals)?
While one question does not necessarily lead to the other, it is difficult to separate them, especially in the Armed Forces where order, discipline, and the chain of command carry so much weight. In the past, many military doctors have felt compelled to perform abortions when they have been “permitted” on-bases, even if privately funded.
I served at Misawa Air Base in northern Japan in the early 1990s, shortly after the 1988 total ban on performing abortions at overseas military installations went into effect (prohibited all abortions regardless of funding). I had the opportunity to interact with dozens of medical personnel, and they all told me how relieved they were with the ban. Prior to it, many doctors felt obligated to provide abortions even when their conscience, morals, and religious beliefs said otherwise. It was a part of their duty, and many did not want to buck the chain of command.
The Slaughter-Gillibrand initiative is a calculated “camel’s nose under the tent” approach to federally funding abortions for more than just servicewomen in the narrow list of situations they cite. Once the door to a benefit is cracked open, it will be difficult to keep it from swinging open wide and far. If that happens, military medical personnel may once again be put in the uncomfortable position of having to perform a procedure they find distasteful or immoral, regardless of any “conscience clause” that may be included in the policy.
Mike Angley is the award-winning author of the thriller series, the Child Finder trilogy. He is a retired USAF Colonel and 25-year career Special Agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (OSI). Follow him on Twitter: @MikeAngley, FaceBook: http://www.facebook.com/mike.angley, and visit his website: www.mikeangley.com.