A new study released in the February issue of Obstetrics & Gynecology found that military women experience a higher-than-average unintended pregnancy rate, and the rate actually increased between 2005 and 2008.
"It’s surprising that the unintended pregnancy rate is so high among servicewomen since they have access to high quality medical care at no cost," said Kate Grindlay, lead author on the study and a senior project manager at Ibis Reproductive Health, in a press release.
The study, which surveyed military women aged 18 to 44 years, found 10.5 percent of active-duty women reported an unintended pregnancy in the previous 12 months in 2008 compared with 9.7 percent in 2005. Researchers say this this rate far higher than the general population, which sees an unintended pregnancy rate of just 5.2 percent.
The study's authors conclude that this high rate of unintended pregnancy is largely due to the lack of access to contraception and other reproductive health care. Few women in the survey said they discussed reproductive health options with a military medical provider before deploying, the study found. The authors also point out that these factors, combined with the high rate of sexual assault, help explain the higher-than-average unintended pregnancy rate for military women.
"The most important thing the military could do is improve access to contraception for all servicewomen—especially prior to deployment. The full range of contraceptive methods should be made available, and women should be given information that can help them decide what method is best for them,” said Dr. Daniel Grossman, vice president for research at Ibis Reproductive Health and assistant clinical professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences at the University of California at San Francisco, in an email to Raw Story.
A previous study in Obstetrics & Gynecology published October found that free access to contraception significantly lowered the rate of unintended pregnancy.
"Contraceptive care needs to become routine in the military to help reduce stigma around the topic," Grossman continued. "In addition, the serious problem of sexual assault in the military needs to be addressed."
A comparable study sponsored by the Department of Defense published in October in Obstetrics & Gynecology found that 16.29 percent of military women 20 years old or younger experienced an unintended pregnancy in the previous year. The pregnancy rate among women in the general population of the same age -- both intended and unintended -- was just 7.1 percent.
Roughly 49 percent of all U.S. births are classified as unintended. A Guttmacher Institute report found that about half of all unmarried women's unintended pregnancies end in abortion and recommended that women "have access to the full range of education and counseling services, along with the most effective contraceptive methods available."
The most recent National Defense Authorization Act, signed by the president earlier this month, included the Shaheen Amendment, which ensures abortion care insurance coverage for military women who are victims of rape and incest.
"First, it remains to be seen how the amendment will be implemented," Grossman said in an email. "It will be important for the military to train providers and establish high quality services at military treatment facilities that allow women to easily access abortion care in case of pregnancy after rape. But of course most women with an unintended pregnancy in the military will still not be able to access abortion care through the military health care system. Given the difficulties that deployed women in particular face if they need to access abortion, at the very least they should be able to obtain the service at a military treatment facility using their own funds."
Update: A veteran and sexual assault survivor talks about her experience.
"A woman being pregnant in uniform was a constant conversation when I was on active duty. Pregnancy in service is treated with scathing disdain," Jenny McClendon, an advisory board member of Protect Our Defenders, told Raw Story in an email.
"Women may opt out of getting birth control through chain of command medical because it is embarrassing to have your chain of command know about your birth control plan," she continued. She said because military records can be less-than-private, women may be reluctant to talk about issues such as birth control, PTSD, sexual assault and substance abuse to an officer in the chain of command.
"Something needs to be said about the fact that sexual activity is prohibited during deployment. This is true. However rape and sexual coercion (also rape) are not curbed and as a protective measure birth control might need to be an option," she said.
[Air Force female soldier guards event on November 6, 2010 at Homestead, Florida. This event takes place at the Homestead Air Force Base via Shutterstock]