Military women suffer infertility 3x more than national average, survey finds

Kaylah Jackson
December 13, 2018 - 3:10 pm

(U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. Noshoba Davis)

Three times more women in the military report they suffer infertility problems than the national average, according to a survey of women who have served about their reproductive health.

In the survey, “Access To Reproductive Health Care: The Experiences of Military Women,” the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) surveyed 799 military women: active-duty, veterans, Guard, Reserve, and retires, about their experiences with infertility, birth control, and abortion care.

The report found that over 30 percent of military women surveyed reported having problems getting pregnant, a stark contrast from the national average. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), "about 10 percent of women in the United States ages 15-44 have difficulty getting pregnant or staying pregnant."

“Women who serve this country should not be jeopardizing their opportunity to have a family. The military needs to determine the reason for this high rate of infertility and immediately provide military women all forms of infertility care at no cost,” said CEO of SWAN and retired Army Col., Ellen Haring,

Within the study, women veterans made up 42 percent of survey respondents and presented varied answers to questions about contraception access and pregnancy attitudes.

45 percent of women veterans received reproductive care through the Veterans Health Administration, while 12 percent of them received care through Military Treatment Facilities. Of the 135 women veterans who responded “yes” when asked if they used birth control, 41 percent of those who deployed and requested birth control, said they weren’t able to access their preferred method.

For many service members, while overseas, having the comforts of home isn’t a guarantee. However, SWAN advocates on behalf of many women veterans who say there shouldn’t be barriers to them getting their birth control, even while on deployment.

“A simple solution is to give the women as much as they need before they deploy, and some providers do, others just don’t,” said Haring.

RELATED: What are your thoughts on birth control? The VA wants to know

According to the study, women who face challenges getting birth control cited multiple obstacles including, providers who didn’t offer them a supply that would last for their entire deployment and birth control requiring refrigeration for storage, which isn’t always available depending on the location. Lastly, some providers wouldn’t prescribe it all due to General Orders that limit sexual contact during deployment.

Courtesy of Service Women's Action Network

While regulations in the military prohibit sexual activity during deployment, SWAN notes that “most women report that they are not using birth control to prevent pregnancy during deployments.” In fact, many servicewomen often utilize birth control to control or suppress menstrual cycles while overseas, among other health reasons.

In addition to birth control access, the lack of proper infertility support ranged across the board for military women. Many women who reported fertility challenges credit their military service as a possible cause. Toxic exposures, ill-fitting body armor, and contaminated water were all factors the study pointed to as sources of their infertility.

“If in fact, it is a toxicity linked to certain chemicals that some people are exposed to based on their job, then we should know that, said Haring. “And there should be something to remediate to protect them or at least they should be advised in advance of choosing those professions."

Care across medical providers for infertility treatments like In vitro fertilization (IVF) can be challenging to navigate. For example, Tricare, the Department of Defense’s health care program, doesn’t cover IVF. However, some servicewomen can receive IVF medical training programs through MTF, but at their own costs.

“If you have to cost share for infertility, you’re talking $15,000 to $30,000. It’s one thing to pay three dollars for a birth control prescription at the pharmacy. It’s another thing to have to pay $15,000 for one round of IVF,” said Haring.

However, if women veterans can prove their service-connected disabilities resulted in infertility, the VA offer treatments to them and their spouses through community providers. Though, for some women, the challenge lies in not knowing that their fertility challenges are service-connected. For that reason, they might not have documented it while in the service.

Unintended pregnancies were part of the conversation for women veterans as well. The study found 11 percent of the surveyed women veterans said they had an “unintended pregnancy after service,” while 31 percent “said they had experienced an unintended pregnancy during military service.”

According to the report, when servicewomen find out they're pregnant, their providers don't discuss their choices. 

After receiving a positive pregnancy test, one Air Force veteran said, “They had already written me a script for prenatal vitamins as if I had no other choice than to carry forward with the pregnancy. I asked about the abortion pill and they said: “no, military medicine does not allow it.”

SWAN points out that treatment options and information aren’t consistent. The organization recommends conducting additional research, increasing access to abortion care while also, offering military women a full range of infertility treatment at no cost.

While much of the data is the only tipping point, Haring says the topic shouldn’t go unnoticed.

“We would like to see, first of all, more research done to pinpoint these problems. We’d like some visibility. We want to know, ‘What does DoD already know? Do they know this? Or, is our research the first time anything like this has been revealed?’ There’s a lot of data that needs to be examined” said Haring.

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