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Women in the military face unique situation as new abortion laws take effect

People protest the Dobbs decision, which overturned Roe v. Wade.
Demonstration in Norfolk following the ruling overturning Roe v. Wade. Laws banning abortion are in effect or coming into effect in 13 states which are home to more than 240,000 service members. (File photo: Paul Bibeau/WHRO)

Naval engineer Ni’Yeria Barr failed her weigh in in 2019.

At first she blamed her eating habits. 

But then she noticed staircases tired her out. She’d buy food and discover she couldn’t tolerate them. 

Eventually she took a pregnancy test, and it was positive. 

“I was like, ‘No it can't be. It's not right,’” she said.

Barr said her pregnancy made her unable to do her job as an engineer, because military regulations  can restrict working conditions of pregnant women. She lost friends and said her pregnancy made it impossible to live in the barracks. She lived with a friend and then a supervising officer. 

Eventually she left active duty.

Before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned abortion rights earlier this year, military women faced a unique challenge: They said their employer put pressure on them to avoid unplanned pregnancies that interfered with the mission, but if they did get pregnant, their employer also restricted access to abortion. 

Lory Manning, a director at the Service Women’s Action Network and a retired Navy captain, said women in the military lived with abortion restrictions since Congress introduced  the Hyde Amendment in the 1970s. 

The rule stops federal funds from paying for most abortions. That means military women — and pregnant dependents — must take leave time, find private abortion providers and pay out of pocket for the procedure.

“We've been living kind of in a post-Roe world for a while,” Manning said. 

Heidi Dragneff served as a Navy corpsman and said military clinics pushed recruits to get on birth control.

“There is a saying that some of the nurses used to tell some of the new recruits,” she said. “‘A baby wasn't issued in your seabag.’"

Dragneff said a pregnancy can become inconvenient in the military, which stigmatizes even nonpregnant women.

“They really treated women on the ship as 'less than' because we could become pregnant at any time,” she said. “And it's like, well, we didn't choose the uterus. The uterus chose us, you know?”

Dragneff and her husband were both in the Navy, but she left when she became pregnant with her second daughter.

“My oldest was a year, year-and-a-half old,” she said. “Having a toddler and a newborn, I knew … it was going to be too much for me.”

Manning said the military doesn’t put pressure on women to avoid having children altogether, but rather to time when they get pregnant, so it doesn’t interfere with deployments.

According to Defense Department data, the option to get abortions outside the military health care system shrunk dramatically in the weeks after the Supreme Court reversed Roe. 

Laws banning abortion are in effect or coming into effect in 13 states,  which are home to more than 240,000 service members.

Virginia does not prohibit abortion, but Gov. Glenn Youngkin backs a proposal to  ban it after 15 weeks.

Gil Cisneros, the Defense Department’s chief of personnel and readiness, told Congress in July he  worried new abortion restrictions would drive people out of the service.

In June, federal lawmakers proposed legislation to remove restrictions on abortion in military medical facilities.

Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine and Rep. Elaine Luria, who represents Virginia Beach and parts of Norfolk, both sit on armed services committees and support abortion rights. Neither have committed to supporting the bill.

Read the original story at WHRO.


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