Navy seeks to combat high rate of unplanned pregnancies

Janise Wilcox, a Tricare representative, hands out information packets on Tricare to a sailor at a Naval Station Norfolk pregnancy seminar in June, 2009. The seminar was open to all female and male sailors who have either had children or are contemplating starting families.


By CRISTINA SILVA | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 7, 2013

NAPLES, Italy — Facing a staggering 74 percent unintended pregnancy rate, the Navy has launched a family planning awareness and information campaign.

The Navy’s peer-mentoring program Coalition of Sailors Against Destructive Decisions is holding informational sessions on family planning throughout January covering topics that include parental leave, operational deferment and the best forms of birth control.

Unintended pregnancy is a significant problem across the general population, but the Navy’s rate is higher.

In 2006, about 49 percent of all pregnancies in the United States were classified as unplanned, according to 2011 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Up to 65 percent of pregnancies in the military are self-reported as unplanned, according to a December report by The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ Committee on Health Care for Underserved Women.

Nearly three-fourths of all Navy pregnancies were unplanned, according to a recent parenthood survey conducted by the service. Of those, only 31 percent of the couples were using birth control at the time they conceived. With pregnancies involving enlisted servicewomen, 70 percent of the fathers were also in the military.

“It is a very high number,” said Eleanor Schwarz, director of the Women’s Health Services Research Unit at the University of Pittsburgh. “It probably does point to a need to try to improve the situation.”

As part of the awareness campaign, the Navy is highlighting the impact unplanned pregnancy can have on a servicemember’s career. A pregnant sailor can be disqualified from a sea duty position needed for career advancement. An unexpected spike in personal and financial responsibilities can also “jeopardize operational mission readiness,” and disrupt careers, according to the Navy news release on the awareness campaign.

Nearly 8 percent of sailors with children are single parents, according to the Navy. Of those, 12,000 are men and 6,000 are women.

“We want you to continue your career in the Navy, and we want to make sure that child is cared for as well,” said Manpower, Personnel, Training and Education Fleet Master Chief Scott Benning in a statement. “It’s a holistic view of the whole situation, it is not about trying to tell someone not to have a family.”

Women’s rights groups and health organizations in recent years have urged the military to make contraception more readily available for deployed servicemembers and veterans.

Contraceptive counseling is available to all women in the military, but effective birth control can be limited because of the nature of the job, according to the recent report by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Deployed servicewomen may need to change their contraceptive methods because not all combat areas or bases stock certain birth control tools, such as patches, injections or contraceptive rings, the report found.

Nancy Duff Campbell, co-president of the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, which has advocated for greater health care rights for women in the military, said the Navy’s educational campaign will only be successful if birth control access is part of the effort.

“One of the things we’ve heard is that there is not a lot of information on the kinds of contraception that can last several months, Depo-Provera and other kinds of long-term contraceptives … “Sometimes there are not adequate supplies of the pill or they are expected to bring a whole year of supply with them,” Campbell said.

The goal should be to help men and women in the military prevent unwanted pregnancies, Campbell said.

“We welcome this and we hope that it’s going to be a thorough examination of the broadest ways to prevent pregnancy and to ensure that all forms of contraception are available,” she said.

Schwarz, who recently contributed to a study on unintended pregnancy and contraception among active-duty servicewomen and veterans, said greater birth control awareness and access would likely reduce the military’s high unplanned pregnancy rate.

“There is a lot of data around that the unintended pregnancy, unfortunately, has a pretty severe effect on a woman’s achievement in this country,” Schwarz said. “Clearly the stakes are higher when you are active-duty.”

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