'Catastrophic': Women in the military could face huge obstacles to abortion if Roe is overturned, lawmakers say

WASHINGTON – After being sexually assaulted at Camp Pendleton in 2007, Erin Kirk went to the base's medical facility for the medication designed to prevent pregnancy in an emergency.

The base didn't have any Plan B pills, so she had to go to the nearest Planned Parenthood for help.

Kirk, a former Marine, is now worried about how other female servicemembers will cope if Roe v. Wade is overturned and they face an unwanted pregnancy. She has influential backing on Capitol Hill.

Top lawmakers say the repeal of Roe v. Wade would leave women troops in many states without access to abortion or other reproductive health services.

Led by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., more than 70 Democratic House members plan to introduce a bill Friday to reverse the Pentagon's ban on funding abortion. Current federal law prohibits the Pentagon from funding abortions or allowing the procedure to be done at military health care facilities, except in cases of rape or incest or where the life of the mother is endangered.

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Erin Kirk had to go off-base for Plan B pills after she was sexually assaulted at Camp Pendleton in 2007.
Erin Kirk had to go off-base for Plan B pills after she was sexually assaulted at Camp Pendleton in 2007.

The repeal of Roe would trigger laws banning abortion in as many as 26 states. Many of those states, including Texas, host large military bases such as Fort Hood, home to about 40,000 soldiers.

A 2018 Rand Corp. survey that women in the military have a slightly higher rate of unintended pregnancies than their civilian peers.

And they will face bigger obstacles to accessing abortion off-base, said Speier, who chairs the Armed Services Committee's panel on personnel.

"Many servicemembers won’t be able to take the time needed away from their jobs and families to travel thousands of miles off-base and out of state, all at their own personal cost," Speier said. "The fallout for our service members and their families will be catastrophic, as is the threat to our military readiness, morale, and unit cohesion.”

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Her bill, the Military Access to Reproductive Care and Health for Military Servicemembers, or MARCH Act, has 73 members who have signed on in support. It would repeal the restrictions on funding and performing abortions in a military setting.

A Gallup poll released Thursday showed that Americans remain largely opposed to overturning Roe v. Wade. The poll found a steady 58% majority believe that the1973 Supreme Court ruling that recognized abortion as a constitutional right should stand, while 35% want it to be reversed. These sentiments are essentially unchanged since 2019, according to Gallup.

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) on Capitol Hill in December 2021 in Washington
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) on Capitol Hill in December 2021 in Washington

Kirk said she counts herself lucky because she was stationed in California and was able to go to a nearby Planned Parenthood.

"Someone in Texas or Oklahoma won't be so lucky," she said. "This is really going to impact service members and have a lot of unintended consequences. It’s going to impact national security."

Kirk, 40, co-founded Not In My Marine Corps, a non-profit group fighting to end sexual harassment and assault in the military. She was also assaulted while deployed in 2008.

Roe's repeal will make some women less inclined to serve, knowing that their reproductive health care won't be assured by the military, she said. The issue is of particular concern for victims of sexual assault, she said.

"Why would women join military if they could be sent to a hostile state and not get the health care they need?" Kirk said.

The Pentagon's latest comprehensive survey on sexual assault dates to 2018, a lag in data due to COVID-19. It found an estimated 20,500 instances of unwanted sexual contact in 2018, an increase over the 14,900 compared with 2016. The military's definition of unwanted sexual contact ranges from groping to rape.

Speier predicted that military readiness will suffer if Roe is repealed and Congress does not provide guarantees that women serving in the military will have access to abortion.

"The fallout for our servicemembers and their families will be catastrophic as is the threat to our military readiness, morale, and unit cohesion,” she said.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Abortion: Women in the military may face hurdles if Roe is overturned