The American military is facing a recruiting crisis and the Dobbs v. Jackson Supreme Court decision that overturned federal protection for abortion will make it worse, according to a new study from the RAND Corporation. RAND is a think tank founded in 1948 that typically focuses on U.S. military readiness and nuclear issues. In the paper, “How the Dobbs Decision Could Affect U.S. National Security” the think tank outlined all the ways that the recent Supreme Court decision will affect female service members. It paints a grim picture.
According to the study, “40 percent of active-duty service women in the continental U.S. will have no or severely restricted access to abortion services where they are stationed.” And the problem goes beyond soldiers. Military bases are supported by millions of civilian staff members, many of them women. “Nearly 43 percent of civilian women employed by DoD will have no access to abortion or will have their access severely curtailed in their home states.”
Women make up 18 percent of the stateside active-duty military and the Pentagon is actively trying to recruit more of them. The U.S. military is facing a historic recruitment crisis. Obesity, drug use, and criminal records take many candidates off the table. In testimony before Congress in May, Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville said that only 23 percent of Americans aged 17-24 met the Pentagon’s strict qualifications. A DoD survey found that only 9 percent of eligible candidates were interested in military service.
Abortion restrictions are passing in states with large military bases like Texas and Oklahoma. More than 100 military bases are in states with total abortion mans. “Service women have little or no say about where they are stationed. By joining or remaining in service, women are agreeing to live under whatever state restrictions might be imposed,” the study said. “Some might opt out of military service under this new reality.”
It’s already hard to be a woman in the U.S. military. The culture is male dominated and sexual assault is an epidemic. The Pentagon has acknowledged this is all a problem. “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,” the Pentagon's chief of personnel and readiness, Gil Cisneros, said in a prepared statement after the Dobbs decision. “This leads us to our concerns about recruitment.”
In an attempt to get ahead of the issue, both the Air Force and the Army issued statements saying it would allow serivcemembers to seek abortions without making formal requests for time off or talking to their commanders. It’s a small comfort in an increasingly drought system, though, as the RAND study made clear.
Women servicemembers living in states with total abortion bans would still face an uphill battle to seek treatment. “First, they could request and take leave to travel to get an abortion in a state where it is legal,” the study said. “Second, they could have the procedure in a state where abortion is illegal, which could result in significant risks to their physical health and put them in legal jeopardy. Third, they could seek a medication abortion in a state with a full or partial ban and risk judicial punishment.”
The women who can’t get abortions will carry their children to term in a male-dominated profession that stimgatizes pregnancy. There’s also the associated cost with medical leave, hospital visits, and childcare. The DoD, which already spends $1.2 billion annually on childcare, would foot the bill for a lot of it. “Ultimately, the most important effect might be a decrease in force readiness and our national security,” the study said.
Abortion and the military was already a delicate subject for the Pentagon. The Hyde amendment made it impossible for soldiers and civilian staff on bases to use military doctors for abortion, with exceptions for live saving treatment, sexual assault, and incest. After the Dobbs decision in June, the Pentagon issued a memorandum meant to assuage fears.
“The Supreme Court’s decision does not prohibit the Department from continuing to perform covered abortions consistent with federal law,” the memo said. “There will be interruption to this care. Health care providers will continue to follow existing departmental policy, and then leadership of military medical treatment facilities will implement measures to ensure continued access to care.”