Unplanned Pregnancies Among Active-Duty Women Increase, Higher Than Civilian Population

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By Annette M. Boyle

Kate Grindlay, Senior Project Manager at Ibis Reproductive Health

CAMBRIDGE, MA – Despite the availability of free contraceptives, unintended pregnancy among active-duty military servicemembers is on the rise and occurs at much higher rates than in the civilian population.

A survey of more than 7,000 women in the U.S. military found an unintended pregnancy rate 50% higher than among their civilian peers, according to a recent study published in Obstetrics & Gynecology.1

Rates increased from 9.7% of women in 2005 to 10.5% in 2008. The age-standardized rate was 7.8% compared with 5.2% in the general population. (With 97% of women in the service being of reproductive age, age standardization adjusts for the substantially higher proportion of young women on active duty than in the overall population).

“The increase in unintended pregnancy from 2005 to 2008 is alarming,” said lead researcher Kate Grindlay, senior project manager at Ibis Reproductive Health, an international advocacy group in Cambridge, MA. The numbers are especially surprising, given that contraception is free to women in the service, she said.

Researchers analyzed cross-sectional data from the 7,225 responses to the Department of Defense Survey of Health Related Behaviors among Active Duty Military Personnel.

The impact on deployments can be substantial, particularly if the trends continue as the number of women in the service rises.

“Half of the women with an unintended pregnancy in the prior 12 months and 11% of women overall in the 2008 Health Related Behaviors Survey reported being unable to deploy in the prior 12 months as a result of pregnancy,” the authors write.

The highest rates of unintended pregnancy were seen in active-duty women who were younger, less educated, nonwhite and cohabitating, rather than married. The rates of unintended pregnancy also are highest among those groups in the civilian population.

Rates By Branch

Only the Air Force had a reduction in unintended pregnancies in the three-year period, with the rate dropping from 7.4% to 6.7%. The Air Force and Coast Guard had the lowest rates overall, both at 6.7%. Rates for the Army stayed consistent at slightly under 12%. Researchers reported that rates of unintended pregnancy increased by 33% among female sailors (9.2% to 12.3%). Women in the Marine Corps had the highest rates in both years analyzed, 15% and 16.9% for 2005 to 2008, respectively.

The Navy’s 2010 Pregnancy and Parenthood Survey showed somewhat lower numbers. According to the Navy, 13% of sailors reported a pregnancy in the previous fiscal year. Nearly two-thirds of pregnancies among enlisted women, and 74% of those among junior sailors were unintended, as were one-third of those among female officers.

In response, the Navy’s peer mentoring program, The Coalition of Sailors Against Destructive Decisions (CSADD), has taken on the challenge of reducing unintended pregnancies through a family-planning program that discusses contraception, Navy policies, and the impact of pregnancy and parenthood for men and women in uniform.

“It is important that male and female servicemembers, to the best of their ability, plan a pregnancy in order to successfully balance the demands of family responsibilities with their military obligations,” said Chief Operations Specialist Jessica Myers, senior enlisted adviser to the Navy’s Office of Women’s Policy.

The Sexual Health and Responsibility Program (SHARP) program seeks to reduce the rate of unplanned pregnancies in the Navy and Marines.

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