Over 40 years ago, Captain Susan Struck became pregnant while serving with the Air Force in Vietnam. Her superiors informed her that if she wished to stay in the service, she’d need to get an abortion –- despite the fact that she had planned to use her accumulated leave for the birth and had made arrangements to give the child up for adoption with the goal of staying in the Air Force. She refused, exercising her right to privacy, and the case almost went to the Supreme Court, but the Air Force waived the policy at the last minute to render the case moot.
Discussing the specifics of the case at her 1993 confirmation hearing, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg talked about how the right to choose is covered under the equal protection clause, suggesting that it might in fact be a stronger argument than the privacy rights cited under Roe v Wade:
...you asked me about my thinking about equal protection versus individual autonomy, and my answer to you is it's both. This is something central to a woman's life, to her dignity. It's a decision that she must make for herself. And when Government controls that decision for her, she's being treated as less than a fully adult human responsible for her own choices.
In 2012, Rebecca Edmonds was faced with a similar situation when she got pregnant while preparing for her commission into the Air Force. She wanted not only to see the pregnancy through, but to keep the baby, and when she informed her superiors of the issue at approximately five months, they said they didn’t anticipate any problems.
They were wrong. Edmonds was discharged from the Air Force for fraud in a case that has sparked a whirlwind of discussion about single parents in the military, discrimination, and the right to choose. Edmonds claims she was effectively presented with the choice of getting married, giving the baby up, or having an abortion to remain in the Air Force, and when she refused these options, she was separated from the service and informed that she’d need to repay the $92,000 loan that had paid for her nursing school, per Air Force policy.
Edmonds is fighting her discharge, pointing out that the Air Force is discriminating against her. The service claims that she failed to disclose the pregnancy as soon as she became aware of it, violating the terms of her contract, which required her to discuss any change in medical condition. And it cites a policy barring single parents from enlisting; intriguingly, the Air Force may have violated its own policies if Edmond’s claims that she was pressured into giving the baby up for adoption are true:
Transferring custody of family members for the purpose of entering the Air Force is prohibited and renders the enlisted program applicant ‘permanently disqualified.’
Her case raises some interesting issues. Families have always been a part of the military, and family life has always been hard, whether you have one or two parents in the household. Edmonds’ mother, a military wife herself, said she and the extended family were ready to provide support and assistance with the baby. Edmonds said she’d thought out the ramifications of any decision she might make and she was most comfortable with staying with her son -– and serving her country, which is something she’d wanted to do since early childhood.
The claim that the Air Force, and by extension the military in general, doesn’t want single mothers would hold more water if a 2009 study hadn’t shown that 30,000 single mothers had been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. It would seem that in fact single mothers are very common in the military, and not least because the stress of deployment can be a significant contributing factor to divorce rates. Women soldiers who may be married when they enter the service or have children do not necessarily remain so, and they’re allowed to continue serving.
Allison Churchill at Business Insider contributed a rather nasty comment on the case with her piece arguing in support of the Air Force:
Edmonds was not completely without options. If she had notified superiors of the change in her medical condition, as she signed a contract promising she'd do, the Air Force wouldn't have accused her of fraud. She could have given custody of her son to her parents, who told CNN they would have taken care of him if their daughter deployed, anyway. She could have married her boyfriend, the father of her child.
Churchill is technically correct. These are all options that were available to Edmonds, but none of them were the choices she wanted to make. These were also choices being forced on her by superior officers, rather than decisions she could make of her own free will. She considered all the possibilities and settled on the one that was most appropriate for her, and that was her right.
Churchill didn’t stop there, either, adding in a charming dose of shaming:
A commenter, Milliepede, raised an interesting point under the Daily Mail's story: ‘Oh, and don't even use the ‘I’m a Catholic and don't believe in abortion’ card. If you're having pre-marital sex and having children outside marriage - THAT IS NOT CATHOLIC [capitalization by commenter] and she shouldn't be portraying herself as such.’...It is also worth noting that none of the three stories mention whether Edmonds was using contraception.
Because prurient speculation over personal matters is so important right now. I wasn’t aware that below-the-fold comments sniping at women were now being reprinted as legitimate sources in major publications. My bad.
Surely fitness for service should be based on training and ability, not whether someone meets your personal moral standards.
While the Air Force may have had a right to discharge her on the basis of fraud and demand repayment of her loan, it was a poor tactical choice on their part. Edmonds wanted to serve, and was ready to dedicate her valuable nursing training to the Air Force; that $92,000 investment in nursing school could have be recouped by allowing her to continue serving and taking advantage of her skills and background. Instead, she’s repaying her loan $100 at a time while working as a pediatric nurse and fighting her discharge, because all she really wants is to be an Air Force nurse, like she planned.
The Air Force may dodge the issue as they did in 1971 by waiving the policy and allowing Ms. Edmonds back in, but I hope they don’t. I hope this case goes to court and gets argued before the public eye, and I hope it sets a clear precedent. Single mothers who want to serve should be able to serve, because all discriminatory barriers to military service should be removed in the interest of building a stronger all-volunteer military that is a more accurate reflection of US society.