Babies Afloat: Coping With Unplanned Pregnancies In the Navy

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 In the 1970s, the policy mandating discharge upon pregnancy changed, with advocates arguing that it was outdated and sexist.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.

Related stories:

Family Planning Saves Lives, But Millions Can’t Access It

NC Rejecting Funds for Family Planning: “If Women Didn’t Have the Sex to Begin With…”

Women’s Health and Reproductive Rights in Jeopardy as Representatives Look to Eliminate International Family Planning

Photo credit: Official US Navy Imagery


Aiden A.
Aiden A.4 years ago

in? how can you, a single person with a single opinion and point of view decide what is best or what ought to be done by hundreds of thousands of people? you don't. get off your pedestal, take that pile of crap out of your mouth, and speak and think for yourself. come back when you have something helpful or insightful to say.

Aiden A.
Aiden A.4 years ago

, even no stresses at all! who'da thunk it?!) and even if it's against the rules, they're going to do it anyway! if something (or someone) is forbidden and taboo, that usually only winds up making it (them) more desirable and coveted. that's how the forbidden fruit theory works (and it doesn't just work with sex either, mind you!). what the real problem is for the unprotected sex issue is, that a lot of individuals are taught abstinence only sex education in grade/middle/high school (and like hell does college teach that; they expect you to come prepared), and never properly learned about contraception and safe sex, and the many alternative contraceptives that are available for both women and men. another issue is that in the military, these contraceptives aren't exactly doled out to every officer, lieutenant and general on the base and then directed to the nearest proper waste receptacle. in case of contraceptive breakage or failure, the military also doesn't provide abortion services or maternity leave.

also, on the last issue you brought up Marilyn, a few thousand of those who were forced to join the military before they could go to their dream college and find a career that they're passionate about will die the same year that they're enlisted. do you or the government have the right to tell anyone and everyone that they have to serve in a formerly optional institution that they may or may not want to serve in, don't believe in, or don't view as a necessary thing to jo

Aiden A.
Aiden A.4 years ago

Marilyn L : well, if it weren't for our government thinking that the U.S's responsibility was to be the world police, maybe our armies and navies etc. wouldn't constantly be running out of people to do whatever it is they do in there.
and have you ever taken the time to consider that maybe, juuuust maybe, not everyone wants to join the mass protector of foreign oil thievery and killing machine that is the U.S military?

also, the "guidelines and responsibilities" of the military are usually pretty blunt and straightforward, so that's not the problem. the problem is that they usually have the wrong message. but, let's say that the military's rules and regulations all stated clearly that there is to be no rape, no assaults on anyone, no sexual conduct in general, do you really think that a few rules are going to stop people from doing those things? hell no! in an institution where you're applauded for killing and maiming and hunting down the enemy the most efficiently, effectively and humorously, how could there not be rape and assault intertwined within the military? of course those who are depraved enough to blindly follow another person's order to kill or detain an "enemy", are capable of raping and assaulting their fellow officers.
and for those who haven't gone completely overboard, it's COMPLETELY NATURAL as well as PREDICTABLE for grown men and women to want to have sex, and become sexually frustrated when they've been under mental and physical stresses (and yes,

Jessica Nielsen
Jessica Nielsen5 years ago

I'm confused. If they've been deployed and are serving the country, when are they finding the time to do the deed? Shouldn't they be working?

Lynn Squance
Lynn S5 years ago

@ Clara H --- Wouldn't it be nice if people knew! But look at the general sex ed in schools where many schools teach abstinence only. Yea, you'd hope they'd know, but they don't. And consider that probably most of these sailors join the navy right out of highschool or college in some cases. It's not just a navy problem, I think it is a national problem brought on by fanatical right wingnuts.

Autumn S.
Autumn S5 years ago


Carol R.
Carol Reom5 years ago

You would think the military would be up on the latest thing but they seem to be lagging behind on birth control which is very important when you have men and women working in close quarters. Sad but true the women suffer the most in situations like this and the men are extremely slow in trying to equalize things and resolve the issues. So goes the world.

Kate S.
Kate S5 years ago

Learned something new today.

Milan Lorman
Milan Lorman5 years ago

What's the matter?! Can't the Navy afford Chastity belts for their female crews?

Clara Hamill
Clara Hamill5 years ago

Why is it the navy's duty to teach sex Ed? You would think people would know by then. Also if unplanned pregnancies are so rare why discuss it?