The Overturn of Roe v. Wade Raises Fundamental Questions for the Department of Defense

The U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, reverting decisions about abortion law to the states. And recently, a number of states that host military bases have enacted restrictive anti-abortion legislation. While this is primarily a domestic and social issue, a decision of this magnitude will likely have significant implications for the composition, organization, and management of the U.S. armed forces. In 1973, women comprised 2 percent of the active-duty force; in 2020, 17.2 percent of the force were women. Regardless of where one stands on the question of legal abortion, the decision raises a number of practical questions for the U.S. military, many of which do not yet have answers. A few of these are discussed below.

Q1: When it comes to the Department of Defense (DOD), who might be affected by this issue­­—and how? 

A1: The data available to effectively assess the scope of this matter is inadequate. A study from 2011 suggests that instances of unintended pregnancy are higher in the U.S. military than in the general population. As the study’s authors note, “active-duty servicewomen have high rates of unintended pregnancy and low contraceptive use, which may be due to official prohibition of sexual activity in the military, logistic difficulties faced by deployed women, and limited patient and provider knowledge of available contraceptives.” Yet a key missing piece of information remains: the proportion of women service members who choose not to report their terminated pregnancies. 

This is because U.S. Code restricts the use of DOD funds and facilities for the performance of abortions to instances of rape, incest, or risk to a mother’s life. For instances outside of those circumstances, service members must seek care off base, under their own auspices. One qualitative survey of women service members that experienced unintended pregnancy notes that “half of respondents avoided visiting a military treatment facility out of fear of harming their careers and worries about confidentiality and stigma.” In other words, it appears that many women do not report their unintended pregnancies or abortion care, making it difficult to assess the scope of the issue in the military services. Relatedly, some have expressed the view that Roe v. Wade’s overturn will impact military readiness. It is difficult to discern the scale of those impacts due to the paucity of data on the subject.  

Q2: What could this mean for military basing in the United States? 

A2: When a service member signs up to be part of the military, they sign up to be posted wherever their service sends them. Yet some of the largest U.S. military installations are located in states that have enacted—or seem poised to enact—legislation restricting or eliminating abortions. This raises a fundamental question: In a post-Roe world, how does DOD policy intersect with the laws of states that are restricting—or eliminating—access to abortion? 

The DOD issued a statement announcing that the department will continue to provide service members with access to abortion in anti-abortion states, consistent with federal law. But in some ways this appears to sidestep the issue. U.S. Code already heavily circumscribes the circumstances under which military funding and facilities for these procedures can be utilized, and some states are making abortion illegal in those narrow circumstances. What about outside those circumstances? The DOD has further stated that it will allow service members to take leave to go to a state where abortion is permitted. How does that work in practice? There are a few issues that might be raised: Crossing state lines and paying for a procedure out of pocket isn’t cheap—a cost that many might not be able to afford. Some service members have already chosen not to notify the military healthcare systems or their commanders about their choice to seek an elective abortion due to concerns about stigma and career setback. What happens when service members who want an abortion—and must request leave to do so—are placed under the command of an officer who has moral and ethical objections to such procedures?

The DOD owes its personnel a generally hospitable and tolerant duty station, and one could take the view that states that ban abortions are, by definition, inhospitable. Fundamentally, what does the DOD’s duty of care look like toward service members—and military families—when they are posted in these states? Should they be posted to facilities in these states? Of note, the Air Force announced it will assist its personnel and families that are affected by state-level anti-LGTBQ+ legislation by offering medical and legal support—and relocation, if necessary. Might this provide the bones of a model for managing the stationing of military personnel in anti-abortion states?  

The issue of basing affects more than women service members. What about male service members with families that might need these procedures? What happens when a male service member is posted to a facility in a state that restricts the care that their dependents can receive—or might eventually restrict the ability of that dependent to leave the state to secure care? Further, how might this affect other nations' personnel that are assigned to U.S. bases as liaison or exchange officers? 

Q3: What could this mean for military force management?

A3: If military services rethink where their personnel are stationed based on local post-Roe locality differences, a related question is how military career fields might also be impacted. Different military specialties have “key developmental assignments”—jargon for jobs that are designed to help a service member grow in their respective career fields—at different locations across the country. What happens when a key developmental assignment is on a base in a state with restrictive anti-abortion legislation? How might the DOD manage the assignment of personnel to, for example, the Air War College in Huntsville, Alabama? Would certain service members simply forego these developmental opportunities? Do alternate facilities or programs need to be established in other states? If the latter, what might be the budgetary implications of doing so?

Q4: Might a post-Roe policy environment set back efforts to build and maintain a diverse, equitable, and inclusive national security and military workforce?  

A4: The reason the United States needs a diverse, equitable, and inclusive national security workforce is that it needs the best people, regardless of their background, to figure out how to navigate the increasingly complicated international security environment. The U.S. government can’t simply throw money at the problem of strategic competition; it actually has to think its way through these challenges and their many manifestations. The national security community needs diverse perspectives to reframe American strategic thinking and approaches toward its adversaries. The U.S. government must therefore find and cultivate talent, regardless of where it comes from. 

Could the current location of bases restrict women’s ability to contribute to the national security mission? Might women rethink signing up to serve if they know they may be stationed in a state that does not allow abortions at some time in the future? The DOD would be wise to collect survey data from its current population, broken down by gender, to see who might prefer to exit the service than risk a new station assignment. Further, they should carefully examine recruitment numbers to identify any changes. While some of these questions are, of course, based on speculation, this kind of speculation—which, in turn, can lead to risk analysis and detailed planning—is needed if DOD leaders are to better understand the different ways that the force might be impacted. 

Maybe there are technical solutions to these challenges. Maybe there will be more litigation before the matter is finally settled. There are still many hypotheticals—and still more unanswered questions. Yet it is now time to have a serious, dispassionate conversation about the roles of, and policies toward, women in uniform in a post-Roe world. Maintaining a diverse and ready all-volunteer force is essential, and DOD leadership must quickly determine whether the overturn of Roe v. Wade will impact that goal.

Kathleen J. McInnis is a senior fellow with the International Security Program and director of the Smart Women, Smart Power Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Kathleen McInnis
Senior Fellow, International Security Program and Director, Smart Women, Smart Power Initiative