The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Overturning Roe would be disastrous for the U.S. military

Thousands of demonstrators march to the Supreme Court during the abortion rights rally in D.C. on May 14. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)
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Allison Gill is a U.S. Navy veteran, author and co-host of the podcasts “The Daily Beans” and “Mueller, She Wrote.”

Overturning Roe v. Wade could have disastrous consequences for the U.S. armed forces, and here’s how I know: When I was 21, I was drugged and raped violently while serving in the military, a crime that resulted in pregnancy.

Had I not had access to abortion, the assault would have ended my career and derailed my life. Should Roe be overturned and access to abortion restricted for female service members across the United States, military readiness would be directly affected.

Women make up 14.4 percent of our active-duty military and about 18 percent of our reserve and National Guard. Rape in the military is prevalent: In 2018, the Defense Department reported that roughly 20,500 service members experienced sexual assault, up from 14,900 two years before.

Many states have trigger laws banning or criminalizing abortion that will go into effect as soon as Roe is overturned — a probable outcome considering the Supreme Court draft opinion that leaked earlier this month.

This will immediately affect active-duty service members, who don’t exactly get to choose what state they serve in, and who don’t have the freedom to travel to other states without a leave “chit” approved up the chain of command — a command that is notoriously bad at dealing with the aftermath of sexual assault. Of the 20,500 service members sexually assaulted in 2018, only one-third reported the assault, and 43 percent of those who did said it was a negative experience.

Military leaders are often averse to having sexual assault associated with their command — not to mention the rapist is often in the chain of command. This leads to situations in which it’s unsafe to report rape. And if there’s no safe space to report rape, there’s certainly no safe space to request leave to travel for abortion care.

Potential workarounds such as mail-order abortion medication would most likely be unfeasible. When I served, mail went through the chain of command, and there were inspections to prevent the receipt of contraband. Although I don’t know whether abortion pills received through the mail today would be confiscated, I do know I never would have ordered them, for fear of being caught and disciplined.

When I tried to report my rapist, I was asked the same questions so many victims have heard before: What were you wearing? Were you flirting? Are you in a fight with your boyfriend? A higher-ranking officer told me I could lose my prestigious nuclear position. He said I’d be dishonorably discharged for filing a false report and court-martialed for adultery because my rapist was married.

“Let’s just chalk this up to what it was,” he said. “Bad judgment on your part.”

I left believing it was my fault — a lie that took over a decade of therapy to undo — and I was terrified to mention it to anyone.

There was no morning-after pill to prevent pregnancy back then. But when I discovered I was pregnant, I was able to access abortion care at a nearby Planned Parenthood, along with a counseling referral. The trauma from the rape almost cost me my life. Access to the care I received afterward saved me.

Now imagine if I hadn’t had that care. Imagine if multitudes of women in the military could not access such care.

In a world without Roe, service members without ready access to abortion care would be trapped. A service member who is raped and becomes pregnant could essentially be forced by the government to carry their pregnancy to term and give birth to their rapist’s baby.

There are concrete steps U.S. officials can take now to help service members who might need to seek abortion care.

First, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin should create policy granting leave for reproductive-health travel, and President Biden should call on the Defense Department to put that policy into practice.

Second, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) should bring the Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA) — sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and supported by senators including Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) — to a floor vote. The bill proposes taking the decision to prosecute rape and assault out of the chain of command, which would give active-duty service members a safe space to report.

The MJIA has 67 bipartisan sponsors. But it was killed when Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) insisted it be included in the National Defense Authorization Act, where it was gutted. Gillibrand has continued to push for a vote on the full proposal and has been repeatedly blocked.

This lack of protections is unacceptable. Forcing service members with unwanted pregnancies to covertly seek abortion care — or to carry a pregnancy to term — would be inhumane. If the United States values women’s military service, it must find a way to ensure they have a choice.