Unplanned pregnancies may be on rise in military

In one survey, the most common reason servicewomen cited for not using birth control was not planning to have sex.

Story highlights

  • In 2008, there were 105 unintended pregnancies for every 1,000 servicewomen, study says
  • The military offers free FDA-approved contraceptives in its medical facilities
  • Unplanned pregnancies can have a significant impact on health, troop readiness
  • Navy Medicine says its statistics are in line with the national rates
Despite access to free contraceptives, unplanned pregnancies are a rising problem for women in the U.S. military, according to a new study.
Nearly 11% of more than 7,000 active-duty women surveyed by the Department of Defense in 2008 reported an unplanned pregnancy during the previous year. That's 50% higher than the average rate in the United States, the study authors say. The study, publishing next month in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology, also notes that the rate has increased since 2005.
Authors Dr. Daniel Grossman and Kate Grindlay analyzed data from the 2005 and 2008 Department of Defense Survey of Health Related Behaviors, which they obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
"It's alarming," Grossman said of the increasing rate. "When you're in the military, that's actually one time where you have access to free, good quality health care. ... It really highlights the need to better address contraceptive care."
The military offers FDA-approved contraceptives, including emergency contraception, at no cost in its medical facilities, according to Shoshona Pilip-Florea, spokeswoman for the U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery.
"It's important to note that contrary to the study, Navy Medicine has consistently found that the number of unintended pregnancies among female sailors and Marines is comparable to the national rates in the general population," Pilip-Florea wrote in an e-mail.
The consequences
Unplanned pregnancies can have a significant impact on the health of military personnel and on troop readiness, according to the study.
Servicewomen who become pregnant unexpectedly while at home cannot be deployed, which may affect their career. Servicewomen who become pregnant while overseas must be sent home, which can cost the military around $10,000.
Research has shown approximately 43% of unplanned pregnancies in the United States end in abortion. "For women in the military, that can represent a huge challenge," Grossman said.
Federal law allows abortion to be covered at military facilities only when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, or threatens the life of the woman. And going off-base for medical care in places like Afghanistan or Iraq can be extremely dangerous, Grossman said.
Behind the numbers
Sexual assault could be playing a role in the military's high number of unplanned pregnancies, the study authors noted.
Research shows an estimated 20% to 40% of servicewomen experience rape or attempted rape during their military career. (Exact numbers are difficult to obtain; the Department of Defense estimates more than 80% of incidents are never reported.)
A lack of sexual education and fears about repercussions could also be contributing factors, the authors said.
In 2012, Grossman and Grindlay published results