Women in the military shared their personal stories and warned lawmakers Friday, July 29, 2022, during a House Armed Services Committee subpanel hearing of heightened obstacles to an abortion in the wake of a Supreme Court decision to eliminate the constitutional right to the medical procedure. (U.S. Air Force)
WASHINGTON — Air Force Maj. Sharon Arana was a single mother of two and a week away from graduating from officer training school when her birth control failed in 2009.
She took a pregnancy test alone in a gas station restroom, avoiding her Alabama military base clinic in case someone there notified her chain of command about the pregnancy. To obtain an abortion, Arana first drove three and a half hours to Atlanta and then flew home to Brooklyn, N.Y., where she paid $400 for the procedure.
Air Force Maj. Theresa Mozzillo was 21 years old and newly stationed at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri when she discovered she was pregnant.
Shy and alone in a male-dominated environment, she felt devastated and lost and considered discussing such an intimate issue with military leadership out of the question. With the help of her only friend, she drove an hour and a half to an abortion provider and paid her entire $550 monthly paycheck for the procedure.
Arana and Mozzillo shared their stories Friday during a House Armed Services Committee subpanel hearing in hopes of drawing attention to the new obstacles women in the military face in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision last month to eliminate the constitutional right to an abortion.
Alabama and Missouri are among at least eight states that have now forbidden the procedure. Another four states ban abortions at six weeks of pregnancy, before many women know they are pregnant.
“I’m especially concerned for these junior enlisted members like I was, on a tight financial budget, who are now stationed in a state that has banned abortion,” Mozzillo said. “Many will now need to travel hundreds of miles away… Will they be able to afford the transportation and hotel costs along with the cost of an abortion? Will they need to ask their direct supervisors for leave? Will this knowledge compromise their careers or will their privacy be respected or will their situation become work center gossip? But most importantly, what would their future look like if they didn’t have an abortion?”
Some Democrats in Congress rushed to shore up abortion protections for the military after the controversial Dobbs v. Jackson court decision leaked in May.
Lawmakers have demanded a standardized leave policy for abortion care that prioritizes privacy. They have urged the Pentagon to offer financial support for service members who must travel for abortion access. And they have introduced bills to allow military medical facilities to provide abortions, calling for the overturn of a federal law that prohibits the use of federal funds to pay for an abortion unless the mother’s life is in danger or the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said during the hearing Friday that her office has been inundated with calls from current and former service members who are “anxious and despondent” about being stationed in states that have outlawed the procedure. Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, also spoke at the hearing and said veterans have even less access to abortion care and counseling than active-duty troops.
Speier, chairwoman of the House Armed Services Committee’s personnel subcommittee, counted 102 military installations in states without abortion access and another 29 installations in states readying to ban the procedure. She said lawmakers are still unclear on the guidance that military medical providers are receiving to continue performing permissible abortions nor do they know if service members can be denied leave or retaliated against for needing an abortion.
An estimated 50,000 women now serving in the military are expected to have an abortion during their lifetime, many during their years in service, Speier said.
“The Department of Defense must act now to provide the right resources, at the right time and right place so that service members and their families — who have no choice about where they live — continue to have access to the reproductive care they need, want, and deserve,” she said.
Gil Cisneros, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, told the House subpanel that the Pentagon is learning to navigate new abortion laws in as many as 29 states but remains committed to providing federally authorized abortions. He admitted the Defense Department is wary about the effect abortion bans will have on recruitment and readiness.
“It is essential for the survivability of our force that we become more diverse and women are a big part of that. They will make us a more lethal and better fighting force and we need them to join our military,” Cisneros said. “To think that some women may think twice before joining the military because of the Dobbs decision is definitely a concern.”
Arana and Mozzillo said they do not regret their careers in the military despite experiencing isolating and, at times, callous treatment. Three weeks after Arana’s abortion in New York, she went to her base clinic in Alabama to check on some continued bleeding. The nurse told Arana that she would keep her abortion a secret, “just in case.”
“I was confused and I felt stigmatized for having an abortion, like I was being judged for a decision that my partner and I had carefully made together,” she said. “I was never offered any support or follow up care at the clinic. Rather, I was sent on my way back to training without my pregnancy termination ever documented in my medical records.”
Arana praised the Air Force for implementing a new policy that enables women to request leave for abortion without obtaining pre-approval from their commander or detailing the nature of the health care service that they plan to receive. But Arana said service members are still left with the burden of using personal days for the procedure and paying for expenses out of pocket.
Jackie Lamme, an active-duty Navy gynecologic surgeon and obstetrician, told lawmakers that she is particularly worried about pregnant women who carried fetuses with malformations so severe that they would not survive birth. Lamme recalled telling the wife of an airman stationed overseas that she could not give the woman an abortion because her life was not at risk.
Instead, the woman had to spend thousands of dollars to travel home to the U.S. to have an abortion that was not covered by the military’s health insurance, Tricare. The family was able to afford the trip and the procedure because of a friend’s fundraiser, Lamme said.
Ghazaleh Moayedi, a Texas-based civilian OB-GYN who treats service members, said she will never forget weeping after sitting with a service member who counted quarters to pay for her abortion. The patient asked Moayedi which parts of pain management care she could forego to afford the procedure and assured Moayedi that she was strong enough not to need pain medication.
“I was changed forever bearing witness to that injustice,” Moayedi said.
Both doctors said the military does not have enough staffing to see every patient of reproductive age and must heavily rely on local civilian doctors to provide treatment, especially for high-risk obstetric care.
Cisneros and Seileen Mullen, the acting defense secretary for health affairs, acknowledged the shortage and said it was emblematic of a nationwide problem also affecting the civilian sector.
To increase access to women’s health care, the Defense Department this week expanded the number of its walk-in contraception clinics and set up a dedicated women’s health website to better disseminate information about benefits, Mullen said. The military is also moving to eliminate copays for IUDs and other contraceptives, Cisneros added.
Speier pressed the officials to commit to building up a more robust contraception education program in the military, for women and men.
“We keep losing sight of the fact that there are two in this process,” she said. “The burden and responsibilities rest with just one once she is pregnant.”
Rep. Andy Kim, D-N.J., said it was powerful for him to hear the perspectives of women in the military who testified Friday and understand the role of luck and happenstance in obtaining abortion care while serving in the military.
“It just shows and reinforces to me just how broken of a system [this is], how we failed you in terms of being able to provide you what you need,” he told Arana and Mozzillo.