Unplanned pregnancies occur in a relatively small percentage of the Navy’s Total Force — less than 1%, to be exact — but they are a concern for force readiness, particularly when they occur during deployment at sea. Historically, women were discharged if they became pregnant while serving, and if they were single, that discharge became a dishonorable one, cutting them off from certain benefits they might otherwise have been entitled to. In the 1970s, the policy mandating discharge upon pregnancy changed, with advocates arguing that it was outdated and sexist.
One thing hasn’t changed, though, and that’s the Navy’s lack of support for parents in the fleet, female parents in particular. In January, the Navy launched a campaign to educate Sailors about planning ahead when it comes to having a family and maintaining a Naval career, reaching out to Sailors across the fleet with educational materials and activities for those interested in participating in the program.
While the concept was a good idea, the Navy’s execution left much to be desired. The materials focused primarily on scaremongering, pointing out that a baby at the wrong time could derail a Sailor’s career in addition to posing problems for force readiness and team members who might be forced to balance more duties while someone was reassigned to accommodate health and safety concerns related to pregnancy. Sailors participated in activities like pricing out baby supplies at the commissary to understand the economic commitment of a baby while being reminded that they had commitments to the United States and the Navy to consider along with the desire to start a family.
What the materials didn’t appear to cover, however, were contraceptive methods, at least not in any great detail. And that’s a problem, given that 66% of servicemen reported not using contraception on a Navy survey, and 40% of female respondents said they’d have sex without contraception if a partner asked them to. 31% of unplanned pregnancies occurred in couples who were not using any birth control at all, highlighting the fact that many servicemen and women aren’t taking the most obvious and basic step to plan their families: controlling the timing of their children by using appropriate contraception.
Part of this is an access issue; historically, there were significant problems with getting birth control to servicewomen, especially those on active duty, and this is still a problem in some areas. Some were forced to carry long-term supplies of birth control with them, while others struggled to find suitable long-acting birth control to suit their needs. However, the larger problem is the lack of sexual education. While some training is provided in boot camp, many enlisted men and women may come from backgrounds where they are exposed primarily to abstinence-only sexual education, which doesn’t provide people with a thorough grounding in understanding contraception and their options. The Navy needs to provide better family planning services, including full training in contraceptive options and how they work so servicemembers can take their fertility into their own hands.
The Navy also needs to address its abortion problem. Until very recently, the only abortions permitted on Navy bases were for pregnancies that threatened the life of the mother. Thanks to significant lobbying, 2013 marks the year in which servicewomen can finally access abortion for cases of rape and incest — and given the huge rate of sexual assault in the military, that’s an important measure. But for other servicewomen, abortions must be paid for out of pocket and received under private care, which can be costly, and in some cases illegal. Those stationed in nations where abortions are banned either must travel back to the U.S. or seek a provider who is working undercover, which exposes them to serious risks.
All Sailors deserve the right to determine the timing and spacing of their children, and the Navy needs to provide them with all the tools they can use to do so.
Photo credit: Official US Navy Imagery