Military women say Defense Department’s reproductive health care far from ‘seamless’ in post-Roe era

Barry Wald said simply when asked about her pregnancy: “We lost the baby.”

The full diagnosis included severe birth defects in the fetus 19 weeks into Wald’s first pregnancy, a baby she and her husband desperately wanted but couldn’t imagine bringing into the world to suffer.

And since the military and their insurer, Tricare, won’t perform or cover abortions for fetal abnormalities, even lethal conditions, that included a horrific, botched abortion in a foreign country that nearly killed her.

The two-week wait for final test results was torture, said Wald, an Air Force Reserve officer of marines wife who was stationed in Okinawa, Japan at the time.

“I remember feeling my son kick … and I didn’t know if I could make it through,” she said of the uncertainty while waiting for test results and the possibility that her fetus might not be healthy.

According to federal law, the military provides for abortions only in cases of rape, incest and danger to the mother’s life.

The Department of Defense has paid for just 91 abortions since 2016, according to a Department of Defense Health Department spokesman.

Now that abortion bans are taking effect in many states after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the Pentagon is scrambling to respond.

“The department is carefully reviewing this decision and evaluating our policies to ensure that we continue to provide seamless access to reproductive health care as permitted by federal law,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on June 22.

But Wald and other military women who told their stories to Stars and Stripes said it’s disingenuous to call the Department of Defense’s reproductive health care “seamless.”

They talked about having to get their care without military support, even when planned, longed-for pregnancies went horribly wrong.

And they said they don’t feel cared for, they feel abandoned by the military at their most vulnerable times.

“It’s the most isolating feeling in the world,” said Callie, the wife of an Army officer, who asked that only her first name be used to protect her privacy.

Her joy at carrying a child turned to terror and anguish during an ultrasound in April.

“Someone said the words ‘incompatible with life,'” she said. “I said, ‘What do you mean? We just saw her move!’ “

Callie’s 12-week-old fetus had anencephaly, meaning major parts of the brain and skull are missing. The baby will most likely die in the womb or, if born, will certainly die soon after birth.

“She wasn’t going to make it and I thought the longer she stayed, maybe the more she would develop and I didn’t want her to suffer,” Callie said.

“And I couldn’t imagine walking around and people saying, ‘Oh, when are you due?'”

A week later, Callie walked into a clinic in Baltimore along with about 20 other women seeking abortions. Her husband, who had written the “sweetest, saddest letter” to their lost daughter, was waiting in the car because of coronavirus protocols.

Since then, Kali and her husband have made several donations to the clinic, whose $950 fee she paid with her credit card. “They were so, so nice. They took such good care of me,” she said of the clinic staff.

Their grief is still deep.

“No one expects it to ever happen to them. If it does, they have to have a choice,” she said. “I’ve always been pro-choice. But now I’m 12 times more pro-choice.”

She said the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the landmark abortion rights decision made her angry, sad and scared.

“We live in a blue state now, but who knows where they will send us?” she said.

In 1976, three years after Roe v. Wade legalized abortion until fetal viability, the Hyde Amendment prohibited the use of federal funds for most abortions in the United States.

For years, the only abortions the military facilitated were for pregnancies that threatened the mother’s life. Exceptions for rape and incest were added in 2013.

Severe and fatal fetal abnormalities were never covered. For Wald and her Marine husband, it led to a nightmare experience in Japan.

After amniocentesis tests came back positive for severe fetal abnormalities, Wald was given a brochure for a Japanese hospital. When they got there, they were told the procedure would take place overnight and cost $5,000 in cash upfront.

The doctor examined her roughly, she said, using a glove from her pocket that smelled of cigarettes. When the procedure began, the pain was unbearable and she started bleeding profusely.

She called her best friend, an intensive care nurse in Arizona, to describe what was happening. The friend consulted an obstetrician, then told her: “You have to leave this place. Is not safe.”

At home early the next morning, Wald awoke weak with a temperature of 105 degrees. The Naval Hospital emergency room diagnosed her with a torn cervix and blood poisoning and started her on intravenous antibiotics, she said.

Later that day, the doctors decided to induce labor. Her newborn son weighed less than 13 ounces, she said.

“I ended up having a compassionate birth after being in a situation no one wanted to be in,” she said, praising the empathy Navy doctors and nurses showed her.

Seven years passed before Wald could talk about the ordeal with anyone except the thousands of women she found in a private Facebook group who had experienced similar tragedies.

Now a mother of two, Wald said her trauma has broadened her support for abortion rights.

“It definitely made me more empathetic to the whole spectrum of reasons why women have abortions,” she said. “Now I am strong and proud. It’s not about me. It’s about my daughter.”

Lauren Brayer said she and her husband, a civilian employee of the Department of Defense, were blindsided several years ago when they learned at 23 weeks gestation that the fetus she was carrying had several genetic abnormalities that would make their child profoundly disabled.

Bryar has multiple sclerosis; her husband has diabetes. Their son, then 2 years old, is autistic. They agonized but knew they could not care for a child with such great needs.

“It was never a decision I thought I would make or wanted to make,” she said. “I was at a point in my life where I would say, ‘Sure, I’m pro-choice, but I would never have an abortion.’ Now I cringe when I think about it.”

Tricare wouldn’t pay for the abortion, but her private insurance did. The military’s refusal to cover abortions for fatal fetal abnormalities has been upheld in at least two federal lawsuits.

Federal judges ruled in separate cases in 2002 that the military must pay for the abortions of anencephalic fetuses, according to a 2013 Congressional Research Service report. Both rulings were overturned on appeal.

According to one of those appeals courts, the Supreme Court decided in a 5-4 decision that the right to an abortion does not include a “constitutional right to the financial resources” necessary to exercise that right.

Continuing such high-risk pregnancies can endanger a woman’s health even more than an uncomplicated pregnancy in the U.S., where maternal mortality is much higher than in other high-income nations, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Carrying a dying fetus to term is potentially lethal and can seriously damage a woman’s mental health, doctors say.

Five states with abortion bans — South Carolina, Louisiana, Utah, Mississippi and Georgia — allow some exceptions for severe fetal defects, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights.

Only two states that ban abortions, Utah and South Carolina, make exceptions for rape or incest, cases in which the military has promised to provide access.

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