Abort or Face Discharge
by Sarah Terzo
A book published in 2010 revealed that the military had a policy that all servicewomen who became pregnant had to abort or face discharge – and this policy was in place before Roe vs. Wade, when abortion was still illegal throughout the United States.
The U.S. military’s purpose is to wage war. Killing enemy combatants, fellow human beings, is part of that mandate. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that an industry based on killing wouldn’t value the lives of preborn children either – or, as it turns out, the right of women to choose to have their children.
Requiring Abortion – before Roe
In 1970, the Department of Defense issued a policy permitting military hospitals to commit abortions on military members and their spouses. In 1970, abortion was illegal in most states, and was only just being legalized (usually with heavy restrictions) in a few. In fact, that year New York became the first state to legalize abortion for any reason up to 24 weeks for all residents and nonresidents.
Military hospitals, however, were performing abortions even in states where the procedure was legally banned.
In addition, the military required servicewomen who became pregnant to have abortions or face discharge.
Records show 4,041 women in the Air Force alone were discharged for getting pregnant and refusing abortions from 1969-1971. Possibly 7,000 women across all military branches were discharged because of pregnancy from roughly the late 1940s to the mid-1970s.The number of women who aborted is unknown.
An Air Force regulation read:
“A woman officer shall be discharged from the service with the least practical delay when a determination is made by a medical officer that she is pregnant” or “has given birth to a living child,” unless the “pregnancy is terminated.”1
Military policy required female Air Force officers who became pregnant to abort or lose their jobs. A pregnancy would end a female officer’s military career – unless she had an abortion.
The Susan Struck Case
Captain Susan R. Struck, a career officer in the Air Force, became pregnant while serving as a nurse in Vietnam.
At first, she planned to have an abortion. The Guardian quotes her:
“But that night I had a dream,” recalled Struck, now aged 75, speaking in a joint interview with the Guardian and WNYC in the city of Sierra Vista, Arizona, some 50 years later.
She dreamed about the fetus, and being called “Mommy”, and the next morning she says: “I sat up in bed, and I said, ‘No way. No way are they going to do this. Susan Struck is not going to fall for this crap.’”
Struck was also a Catholic, and this influenced her choice to have her baby.
She was able to hide the pregnancy for seven-and-a-half months, but received a discharge notice when her pregnancy was discovered.
She gave birth to her child, a baby girl named Tanya, and put the child up for adoption.
Her punishment was discharge, but unlike Air Force officers before her, she decided to fight back. She went to court, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union. The lawyer assigned to her case was Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who would later become a Supreme Court Justice. She obtained a stay of discharge, but it turned out only to be temporary. She lost both in the United States District Court in Seattle and in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Both sets of judges ruled that she could be discharged for her refusal to get an abortion.
Though it first was sought during her pregnancy, at this point her discharge was purely punitive. There was no reason Struck couldn’t resume her duties. Her pregnancy was over, her baby gone. She wouldn’t be impeded by a medical condition or the need to care for a child. But the Air Force was determined to discharge her anyway.
The case was appealed to the Supreme Court. But perhaps fearing bad publicity, the Air Force changed its policy. According to authors Linda Greenhouse and Reva Siegel, it did not reverse the policy. Female Air Force officers who became pregnant would still face discharge if they didn’t have an abortion. What the Air Force did was allow officials to waive enforcement of the policy in individual cases. They then waived the policy in Struck’s case in 1972.
There is a discrepancy in sources here. A military-sponsored website implies that the policy was abandoned, not revised. The Guardian, another source, is ambiguous on this point, saying only that the discharge would no longer be ‘automatic.’ Whether Greenhouse and Siegal have it wrong or whether the military is trying to sugar-coat its history is unclear.
Because Struck was no longer facing discharge, the Supreme Court dismissed her case as moot.
Interestingly, this whole event played out while abortion was illegal in most states. Abortion wasn’t legalized until Roe vs. Wade in 1973.
It’s likely that members of the fledgling pro-choice movement knew about Struck’s case. However, there doesn’t seem to be any documentation that they ever publicly addressed or opposed the coerced abortion policy. They focused all their attention on legalizing elective abortions across the United States. They didn’t rally to defend Struck’s right to have her child. This was despite their professed commitment to women’s “right to choose.”
I have read contemporary books by early pro-choice activists such as Bernard Nathanson (who later became pro-life), Larry Lader and Malcolm Potts and perused many early pro-choice documents. I have never seen reference to Struck’s case.
It’s hard to see a bigger violation of the “right to choose” than women being forced to abort under pain of their careers being ended. Yet pro-choice forces didn’t advocate for the women suffering under the military’s policy.
Despite winning the lawsuit, Struck faced so much hostility that she left the Air Force anyway and became a pediatric nurse. She eventually established a relationship with the daughter she placed for adoption.
Another coerced abortion policy was in place in Great Britain. According to pro-choice feminist Janet Hadley:
[T]he British military had a policy of kicking women who became pregnant out of the service if they did not abort. If a woman was found to be over 16 weeks pregnant, she was discharged, even if she was in a clerical or office job or other noncombat position.2
As we can see, this coerced abortion policy applied to women whose jobs wouldn’t be compromised by the physical condition of pregnancy. It wasn’t limited to potential combatants.
One victim of the policy, a telephone operator at the Women’s Royal Navy Service, who had an abortion, said:
They gave me a weekend to think about it. It was like I was going to the dentist to have a tooth out. There was no compassion and no counseling… My boyfriend didn’t want to know, I had no choice.3
Women went to court to challenge the policy. According to a lawyer who represented the women:
There was a culture of abortion. If you went to the medical officer, you got told how quickly an abortion could be arranged and that the military hospital was lined up ready to do the operation.4
Fortunately, this policy did end, and military personnel are no longer required to get abortions in Great Britain.
These forced abortion policies give insight into the nature of the military, both in the U.S. and elsewhere. The military, whether in our country or another, puts its members in harm’s way and endangers their lives as a matter of course. It isn’t surprising that in addition to not valuing its members’ lives, it tends not to value their right to choose against abortion. Nor is it surprising that an industry predicated on killing would have no scruples about mandating more killing.
- Linda Greenhouse and Reva Siegel, eds. Before Roe v. Wade: Voices That Shaped the Abortion Debate before the Supreme Court’s Ruling (New York: Kaplan Publishing, 2010), pp. 198 – 199
- Janet Hadley Abortion: Between Freedom and Necessity (Great Britain: Virago Press 1996), p. 102
- “Abortions Test Case for Army” Guardian March 28, 1994
- Hadley, p. 104
For more of our posts on similar themes, see: