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 clinic at the Alabama military base in case someone informed her chain of command of the pregnancy. To get an abortion, Arana first drove three and a half hours to Atlanta and then flew to Brooklyn, NY, where she paid $400 for the procedure.
Air Force Maj. Theresa Mozzillo was 21 and had just been posted to 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 it out of the question to discuss such an intimate matter with military leaders. With the help of her only friend, she drove an hour and a half to an abortion provider and paid her full monthly salary of $550 for the procedure.
Arana and Mozzillo shared their stories Friday at a House Armed Services Committee subcommittee hearing in hopes of drawing attention to new barriers facing female service members in the wake of the court ruling. Supreme Court last month to eliminate the constitutional right to abortion.
Alabama and Missouri are among at least eight states that have now banned the procedure. Four other states ban abortions at six weeks gestation, before many women know they are pregnant.
“I’m especially concerned about those junior enlisted members like me, on a tight financial budget, who are now stationed in a state that has banned abortion,” Mozzillo said. “Many will now have to travel hundreds of miles… Will they be able to afford transport and hotel costs and the cost of an abortion? Will they need to request time off from their direct supervisors? Will this knowledge jeopardize their career or will their privacy be respected or will their situation become a work center gossip? But above all, what would their future look like if they did not have an abortion?
Some congressional Democrats have rushed to bolster abortion protections for service members after the controversial Dobbs court ruling against Jackson leaked in May.
Lawmakers have demanded a standardized abortion care leave policy that prioritizes privacy. They urged the Pentagon to offer financial support to service members who must travel to access abortion. And they have introduced bills to allow military medical facilities to perform abortions, calling for the repeal of a federal law that prohibits the use of federal funds to pay for an abortion unless the life of the mother is in danger. is in danger or the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-California, said during the Friday hearing that her office has been inundated with calls from current and former service members who are “anxious and discouraged” about being stationed in states that have prohibit the procedure. Rep. Mark Takano, D-California, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, also spoke at the hearing and said veterans have even less access to life-saving care and counseling. abortion than active duty troops.
Speier, who is the chairwoman of the House Armed Services Committee’s personnel subcommittee, counted 102 military installations in states with no abortion access and another 29 facilities in states willing to ban the procedure. She said lawmakers are still unclear about the guidelines military medical providers receive to continue performing legal abortions, nor are they clear on whether service members can be denied leave or suffer retaliation for needing an abortion.
An estimated 50,000 women currently serving in the military are expected to have abortions in their lifetime, many of them during their years of service, Speier said.
“The Department of Defense must act now to provide the right resources, at the right time and in the right place so that service members and their families – who have no choice in 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 preparedness, told the House subcommittee that the Pentagon was learning to navigate new abortion laws in as many as 29 states, but remained committed to provide federally licensed abortions. He admitted that the Department of Defense is wary of the effect abortion bans will have on recruitment and preparation.
“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 deadlier and better fighting force and we need them to join our army,” Cisneros said. “To think that some women may think twice about joining the military because of the Dobbs decision is certainly a concern.”
Arana and Mozzillo said they have no regrets about their careers in the military despite isolating and, at times, callous treatment. Three weeks after Arana’s abortion in New York, she visited her base clinic in Alabama to check for some ongoing bleeding. The nurse told Arana she would keep her abortion a secret, “just in case”.
“I was confused and felt stigmatized for having an abortion, like I was being judged for a decision my partner and I had carefully made together,” she said. “I was never offered any support or follow-up at the clinic. Instead, I was sent back on the training path without my pregnancy termination ever being documented in my medical records.
Arana praised the Air Force for implementing a new policy that allows women to request abortion leave without obtaining prior approval from their commander or detailing the nature of the health care service. they expect to receive. But Arana said service members still have the burden of using personal days for the procedure and paying for expenses out of pocket.
Jackie Lamme, an active-duty Navy gynecologist and obstetrician surgeon, told lawmakers she was especially worried about pregnant women who were carrying fetuses with such severe defects that they would not survive birth. Lamme remembers telling the wife of an overseas airman that she couldn’t have an abortion because her life wasn’t in danger.
Instead, the woman had to spend thousands of dollars to return home to the United States to have an abortion, which was not covered by the military’s health insurance, Tricare. The family was able to pay for the trip and the procedure through a friend’s fundraiser, Lamme said.
Ghazaleh Moayedi, a Texas-based civilian OB-GYN who treats the military, said she will never forget to cry after sitting down with a military man who counted quarters to pay for his abortion. The patient asked Moayedi what parts of pain management care she could forgo to pay for the procedure and assured Moayedi that she was strong enough not to need painkillers.
“I was forever changed by witnessing this injustice,” Moayedi said.
The two doctors said the military did not have enough personnel to see all patients of childbearing age and had to rely heavily on local civilian doctors to provide treatment, especially for high-risk obstetric care.
Cisneros and Seileen Mullen, acting secretary of defense for health affairs, acknowledged the shortage and said it was emblematic of a national problem also affecting the civilian sector.
To increase women’s health care access, the Department of Defense this week increased the number of its walk-in birth control clinics and created a dedicated women’s health website to better disseminate information about the benefits, Mullen said. The military is also preparing to eliminate copayments for IUDs and other contraceptives, Cisneros added.
Speier urged officials to commit to a more robust contraceptive education program in the military, for both women and men.
“We keep losing sight of the fact that there are two in this process,” she said. “The burden and responsibilities fall on one once she is pregnant.”
Rep. Andy Kim, DN.J., said it was powerful for him to hear the perspectives of servicewomen who testified Friday and to understand the role of luck and chance in obtaining care. abortion while serving in the military.
“It shows and reinforces for me how broken a system is [this is]how we let you down in terms of being able to provide you with what you need,” he told Arana and Mozzillo.