Abortion in the Army in the Decades Surrounding Roe v. Wade

Saturday, January 7, 2012: 3:30 PM
Missouri Room (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Kara Dixon Vuic, Bridgewater College
Historians seeking sources on the history of abortion in the United States might assume that the military was not a site of much debate about the matter. However, as this presentation will reveal, the military engaged in a lively debate about abortion policies in the years surrounding the Roe v. Wade (1973) decision. As the army struggled to recruit and retain increasing numbers of women during the Vietnam War, it found itself needing to develop consistent policies on pregnancy, birth control, and abortion, even as the stationing of women in Vietnam introduced additional complications. This paper outlines the history of the army’s evolving abortion policies and discusses the tensions between the Nixon administration and the Department of Defense over these policies. Beginning in 1966, military physicians were free to perform abortions regardless of state law. And yet, while the army’s allowances provided military women more reproductive choices than were guaranteed to many civilian women, in the early 1970s the Nixon administration reversed previous policies and declared that state laws would determine the availability of abortion in military hospitals. In addition to this institutional history, this presentation will also discuss the military women whose lives were shaped by these policies and the difficulties historians face in documenting their lives. This little-known history of abortion in the 1960s and 1970s sheds light on the nuances of federal and state abortion policies, the history of federal abortion funding, and military and government efforts to regulate military women’s sexuality. As questions of federal funding for abortion once again dominate political debate, and as women become an even greater percentage of the U.S. military, this history will prove both important and timely.
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