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Senate to Vote on Repeal of Restrictive Military Abortion Ban

The Senate Armed Services Committee recently included an amendment to the Fiscal Year 2011 National Defense Authorization Act that would restore access to safe and legal abortion to thousands of American servicewomen worldwide and allow privately financed abortions at military hospitals and bases. The amendment, introduced by Senator Roland Burris (D-Illinois) and passed on May 27, 2010, with a vote of 15–12, mostly along party lines, would reverse the decades-old ban on abortion in military hospitals, except in cases in which the life of the mother is in danger or in which rape or incest have been reported.
Abortion access in the military is currently all but inaccessible. Under current law, women seeking abortion except in cases of reported rape, incest, or a life-threatening medical condition must be referred to an outside, civilian clinic where they must pay for the procedure out of pocket.[1] This causes great hardship for women seeking abortion access while stationed overseas, particularly in war zones such as Iraq or Afghanistan or places where abortion is illegal. Access might be further limited by distance from, understaffing of, or unsanitary conditions in local health clinics. To obtain abortion in cases such as this, women would have to pay for both transportation to and from a place to stay in the nearest city or foreign country that offers abortion services, report their plans and reason for travel to a commanding officer, as well as pay for the procedure itself in a civilian medical facility.[2] Financially and medically speaking, this is undeniably prohibitive.
Furthering the problematic nature of this ban is the high frequency of sexual assault that takes place in the military, particularly at overseas bases, and the military cultural pressure on base not to report sexual assault. Even in cases of sexual assault that might result in pregnancy, there is a high likelihood that the disincentive of reporting would prohibit women from access safe abortion services.[3]
Since abortion access at military facilities was first formally addressed in 1970, restrictions on access to abortion on base have been in constant flux. In the early 1970s, the Department of Defense allowed abortion at military facilities and provided funds to servicewomen and military dependents. While abortions continued to be offered and taxpayer-funded through the 1970s, Congress offered significant pushback in the late 1970s and began restricting access to the procedure throughout the 1980s, culminating in a ban of use of both Department of Defense funds and military medical facilities.
In response, President Bill Clinton issued a 1993 memorandum stating that the restrictions of the late 1980s had “gone beyond the requirements of the statue,” calling the ban “unwarranted” and allowed privately funded abortions at military facilities.[4] However, in the 1996 Department of Defense Authorization Act, the Republican controlled Congress instituted the current ban, except in cases of rape, incest, or when the life of the woman is in danger. The current blanket ban would take a specific act of Congress to change this provision.[5] The amendment introduced by Burris offers to do just that.
At the time of this writing, the full Senate has yet to vote on the bill. Once the Senate passes the legislation, discrepancies between the House and Senate versions will need to be hashed out in a joint committee meeting. Advocates are cautiously optimistic about the language’s chances on the Senate floor and in negotiations with the House.
“SIECUS salutes Senator Burris’s and the Committee’s actions,” comments Jen Heitel Yakush, director of public policy at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. “We call on the full Senate to further the promise presented by this recent amendment. Military women serving overseas should have the same access to basic health care that other American women do.”

[1] Elizabeth Bullimer, “Plan Would Allow Abortions at Military Hospitals,” New York Times, 10 June 2010, accessed 15 June 2010 <>.

[2] Mandy Simon, Facts vs. Fiction on the Military Abortion Ban, (10 June 2010), accessed 15 June 2010, <>.

[3] Kathryn Joyce, Military Abortions: Female Soldiers Not Protected by Constitution They Defend (15 December 2009), accessed July 7, 2010 <>.

[4] John T. Woolley and Gerhard Peters/American Presidency Project, Memorandum on Abortions in Military Hospitals (President William J. Clinton to the Secretary of Defense, 22 January1993), accessed 15 June 2010, <>.

[5] David F. Burrelli, “Abortion Services and Military Medical Facilities,” Defense Legislation Blog, 8 July 2010, accessed 9 July 2010, <>.