Most abortions are banned at military hospitals. Advocates want Congress to change that.
Air Force reservist Bari Wald was 34 years old and living in Japan when she became pregnant for the first time. She and her Marine husband very much wanted the child — a baby boy. But a prenatal test showed severe birth defects.
“I got a phone call from the maternal fetal medicine doctor,” Wald said. “We were awaiting the results of an amniocentesis, and she asked if my husband and I could come in. Now I know: if you ever get asked to come into the office, it's probably not good news.”
The couple decided to terminate the pregnancy at 19 weeks. But because U.S. military hospitals in Japan wouldn’t perform the abortion, they went to a local clinic in Okinawa. The care there was rough and unsanitary, and the language barrier made it hard for Wald to understand what was happening.
“I have never felt so much pain in my life,” she said. “No sedation. Nothing. Blood running down my legs.”
Wald would have preferred to go to the Naval Medical Hospital on Okinawa. But for decades, a federal provision has banned abortions at military hospitals — with few exceptions.
The ban been a particular problem for troops and their families serving overseas, where private medical care is inconsistent. But it's now become a bigger issue for service members in the U.S. as states ban abortion.
Wald, now a veterans advocate in Indiana, said she worries for military women stationed in places with limited access.
“It’s a lonely place to be when you go through something like this — especially in the military.”
Access to abortion has been deteriorating for military women much longer than it has for civilian women.
In 1976, shortly after the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, Congress first passed the Hyde amendment, which began to restrict the use of federal funds for abortion. Hyde isn’t a law, but rather a congressional rider that gets tacked on to the Health and Human Services budget every year.
Though the Hyde Amendment initially sought to restrict the use of Medical funds for abortion, its language was gradually incorporated into other federal programs. Now, federal statute bars military hospitals from performing abortions except in cases of rape or incest, or if the life of the mother is danger. People can’t self-pay for abortions at military treatment facilities either.
“Federal law prohibits the Department of Defense from providing abortion services at military treatment facilities,” said Freya Riedlin, federal policy counsel with the Center for Reproductive Rights. “Abortion access should not depend on how much money somebody makes or where they live, or if they're a member of the military.”
Riedlin said the Hyde Amendment restrictions have taken on new relevance since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade earlier this year.
“Service members can’t choose where they’re based," Riedlin said. "So they have no choice but to navigate this maze of state restrictions — and now increasingly extreme abortion bans — to try to access care.”
While Congress has reenacted Hyde every year for more than four decades, both President Biden and Senate appropriators have recently proposed ending it.
“The Hyde Amendment is no longer something that progressive Democrats are willing to accept, nor is it something that centrist Democrats are really holding on to,” said Claire McKinney, a professor of Government and Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies at the College of William and Mary.
Repealing the Hyde Amendment could lay the groundwork for eliminating the other, more permanent provisions that restrict military abortions, McKinney argues. But it will be a tough political fight. McKinney said that while Hyde has become a target for some high information voters, it still has popular support. Plus, Senate Democrats don’t have the 60 votes needed to wipe it from the budget.
“Even people who think abortion should be legal aren't necessarily in favor of seeing the federal government pay for abortions,” McKinney said. “I think if we presume normal political behavior, this is very unlikely to be the place people would focus their time and energy in trying to force the issue.”
In the meantime, the Department of Defense is limited in what it can do to help service members seeking abortions. While the department has said it’s committed to ensuring access, its action so far has taken the form of expanding free contraception at military medical facilities. Some of the service branches also have assured servicemembers that leave will be available if they need to travel for abortions.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.