October 23, 2012
Trigger Warning: This article discusses sexual violence, rape, and abortion.
A woman in the United States military must not only fight on the front lines, but must also fight for herself: to protect her body from being violated. When a woman enlists in the military, the chances of her being raped double. Servicewomen have reported horrific stories of being held at gunpoint, threatened, drugged, severely injured, or knocked unconscious not by opposing forces, but by fellow US servicemen. Assault can occur at any time: on the first day of deployment, during training on base, or at a military academy. Afterward, she may not only be left with emotional trauma, but also a fertilized egg. With the return of ROTC to Yale’s campus after a forty-year hiatus, the issues surrounding military rape now impact our own students.
In the United States, federal public servants have health care coverage for abortions in the case of rape, incest, or life-threatening health concerns. Women in the U.S. military, though, must pay out of pocket to terminate a pregnancy in the same circumstances. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) added an amendment to the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act that would give military women that same coverage: in the case of rape, incest, or life-threatening health concerns, they could choose to receive an abortion under their military health plan. The amendment has already passed in Senate Armed Services Committee by a bipartisan vote of 16 to 10 on May 24. A similar proposal failed to pass last year, but Shaheen is “hopeful” that the endorsements from Republican senators on the committee, such as John McCain (AZ) and Scott Brown (MA), will strengthen its chances of being included in the 2013 final bill. However, the amendment must survive the challenge of passing through the Republican-controlled House. A GOP staffer “familiar with defense issues” stated to the Army Times that Shaheen’s amendment would likely be removed from the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act. The House Armed Services Committee had no similar amendment, and the staffer noted, “Historically, social provisions that are not reflected in both bills heading into conference don’t survive.”
The Shaheen Amendment will give military women the same access to abortions that federal employees have. Currently, a woman in the Armed Forces must overcome hurdle after hurdle to get any sort of care. If she’s stationed in a country where abortion is illegal, she may have to resort to giving herself an abortion or to finding an underground provider, both of which are very unsafe. If abortion is legal where she is stationed, she will need her superior’s approval to leave base, must somehow foot the bill with her low military income, and must face the stigma and shame around both pregnancy and abortion. Some women, unable to surmount these obstacles, will have to remain pregnant and give birth.
The trauma from rape will affect these women for years, and lack of support the military offers now only makes them feel more betrayed. People who have experienced rape should not have to endure additional hardship from unsafe treatment or financial burden.
This is the narrative being told by the mainstream media. However, it imperative that feminist commentators recognize this legislation does not just impact cisgender women, and that we cannot erase the experiences of trans servicemembers. The Shaheen Amendment could also apply to trans men and genderqueer or gender non-conforming people who have functioning ovaries and a uterus, who could receive abortion coverage under this amendment. Still, like the military as a whole, this process will be highly gendered and will certainly misgender them. It is also important to note how the mainstream narrative focuses on abortion in cases of rape, rendering invisible those servicewomen who may become pregnant through consensual sex, and whose barriers to accessing abortion are equally high. This moreover perpetuates discourse that sees abortion as legitimate only in “extreme cases,” rather than a legitimate form of bodily control.
The passing of the Shaheen Amendment does not imply that victims will truly receive justice in the military system. Military Sexual Trauma (MST), from both harassment and assault, is the number one cause of PTSD in female soldiers. In 2011, the Pentagon reported about 3,000 cases of sexual harassment and assault in the military, but the Department of Defense estimated that only about 16% of cases are actually reported. That means 19,000 women and men, or twenty-five people a day, whether they are serving in war torn countries like Afghanistan or students at military academies like West Point, are assaulted by their fellow service members.
The Shaheen Amendment gives impregnated rape victims the right to abort, but fewer than 500 cases of servicemember sexual harassment or assault go to trial. Women in the military calling for recourse after a rape will often be labeled as troublemakers, have their careers stifled, and may risk investigation for adultery charges. Servicewomen feel they must prove themselves as capable as their male counterparts, and reporting rape will immediately change how other men view them. The social pressure to “suck it up” is enough to silence women from stepping forward.
If she decides to face the social stigma, a servicewoman has even less motivation to report rape because the burden of proof is so high. Servicemen can argue that the contact was consensual, and may guilt, blame, or even threaten victims until they agree. Women, not just in the military, are told that they were raped because they made “poor” decisions. Toxic, victim-blaming mindsets fault the person violated instead of the violator. Those people argue that a female’s prior choices marginalize her cries of “no!” during the act: that a woman’s clothing can advertise that she wants sex, that women who are drunk want to be taken advantage of, and that consent once means she will always consent. For servicewomen especially, it can be difficult to avoid the perpetrator if they are in her unit or branch, and the constant intimidation can change her mind quickly about reporting.
Women are even discouraged from filing by the sheer bias in how cases are handled. In the military, assaults are reported up the chain of command, so it is easy to dismiss a case if the accuser is a drinking buddy of the supervisors, or worse, the supervisor himself. If the report is one of the few that goes to trial—only around a few hundred ever make it that far—the victim will have to endure a humiliating battle in court while the perpetrator might get off with a light punishment, if any at all.
The U.S. military is one of the most advanced armed forces team in the world, yet it ignores a continuing epidemic of sexual assault within its ranks. Women join the military for many reasons: to serve their country, to travel the world, to fund their future college education with the G.I. Bill, to escape their difficult surroundings, or to experience the personal and professional growth the military offers. Unfortunately, what they discover is that the military will often look the other direction when sexual harassment or assault occurs. The victim might suffer through investigations, emotional and physical trauma, a career cut short, or an unwanted pregnancy with no covered abortion. Their assailants will face little or no criminal charges. The Shaheen Amendment, currently being debated in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013, hopes to give these women some justice, although their fight is far from over.
Annemarie McDaniel is a freshman in Yale College. She is a contributing writer for Broad Recognition.