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Shaheen: End war pregnancy policy

Female soldiers faced court-martial

What should the military do to deployed soldiers who become pregnant? Maj. Gen. Anthony Cucolo, the commander of an Army division in Iraq, recently made headlines when he demanded soldiers serving under him not become pregnant while serving in a war zone under the threat of court-martial. In a letter to Army Secretary John McHugh, New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, asked that the policy be rescinded.

"We believe the threat of criminal sanctions in the case of pregnancy goes far beyond what is needed to maintain good order and discipline," she wrote in the Dec. 22 letter, also signed by Sens. Barbara Boxer of California, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, all Democrats.

The senators wrote that the policy could encourage female soldiers to harm themselves by delaying getting medical care. It would also undermine the ability of married couples to both serve, they said.

"We can think of no greater deterrent to women contemplating a military career than the image of a pregnant woman being severely punished simply for conceiving a child," the senators wrote. "This defies comprehension."

Cucolo, who commands 22,000 soldiers including 1,682 women, has since said he would not seek to court-martial women who become pregnant. But he told reporters that a policy remains in place to encourage women to think carefully before leaving their unit shorthanded, according to news accounts. Women who get pregnant are automatically redeployed out of a combat zone and could face reprimands. Cucolo's policy would also punish a man who gets a woman pregnant.

The policy has outraged women's groups, even as it has gained the support of some in the military. Kary Jencks, public affairs director for New Hampshire Planned Parenthood, called the policy "bizarre."

"I think it's unfortunate that once again the natural capacity that a woman's body has is disciplined," Jencks said. "It's always viewed as a handicap, not a normal aspect of being a woman."

Rather than disciplining women for getting pregnant, Jencks said the military should focus on having family planning options available to avoid unintended pregnancies. If a woman does get pregnant, Jencks said, the military should realize that "it's a fact of life." She said the military should be happy that a couple are bringing new life into the world rather than viewing it as a handicap.

Jencks added that the argument that a woman would get pregnant just to get out of serving is not a strong one.

"That's a pretty serious life-changing decision to make just to get yourself out of a tour of duty," she said. "Once again, women are being blamed, and not allowed to be supported, in their reproductive choices."

Pilar Olivo, interim executive director of NARAL Pro Choice New Hampshire, said women in the military face a Catch 22. They don't have access to emergency contraception or abortions. That means if they are assaulted or become pregnant by mistake, they have no option but to carry the baby and leave active duty.

"If they have a contraceptive failure, they don't have any options to deal with their pregnancy," she said. "They're in a terrible bind." (Olivo is the wife of Monitor Publisher Geordie Wilson.)

But some in the military say restrictions on getting pregnant in a war zone are necessary.

"I don't think it's the time and place," said Reggie Chown, commander of the Suncook American Legion. "Why would you want to be deployed and get pregnant over there? Today there is enough contraception that that shouldn't happen."

State Rep. Frank Emiro, a Londonderry Republican and member of the board of directors of the National Vietnam and Gulf War Veterans Coalition, also agrees with Cucolo's policy.