According to the most recent numbers published in Military Medicine in 2013, a total of 2.2 million females serve our country as active duty service members. Forty percent of these women were 26 years of age and under, in their prime reproductive years.
Herein lies a multifaceted dilemma from the standpoint of preserving fertility. For servicewomen, the timing of starting a family is complicated, because the cornerstone of serving their country means deployment. If they become pregnant without enough time before the next deployment, troops may have to be restructured, and someone else may have to leave his or her family again sooner than expected in order to bridge the gap.
The challenge for servicewomen and military moms should never be understated.
Reporter Anna Medaris Miller of U.S. News wrote, “While birth control pills and some other forms of contraception are covered by the military (women are allowed a 180-day supply prior to deployment), access can be spotty, according to a 2013 study in the journal Contraception that found one-third of the 281 active duty servicewomen surveyed couldn’t get the type of birth control they wanted before deploying, and 41 percent had trouble refilling prescriptions on duty.”
Miller interviewed a woman who served in the U.S. Army and is now in the reserves. She told the reporter that getting pregnant in the war zone, also referred to as “in theater” is strictly prohibited, as well as a social taboo. Due to an unexpected pregnancy, Price left her tour in Iraq a couple months early.
“I was mortified,” she said.
For those women in the military who hold off on becoming moms, they may be jeopardizing their own fertility. This isn’t something new recruits generally think about, and, therefore, they should be counseled about the potential impact on their fertility beforehand.
“There isn’t any data that would say you’ll be less fertile after deployment than you would be beforehand,” said Dr. Wilma Larsen, a retired Colonel and current assistant chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Scott & White Memorial Hospital in Temple, Texas. She continued, “But if you think about some of the environmental issues that could occur, it makes sense that there could be an effect on fertility.”
Dr. Gilbert L. Mottla, a fertility specialist and reproductive endocrinologist, told the reporter that servicewomen have the potential to phase out of their fertile years and risk their reproductive health due to an injury.
“In a perfect world, we would counsel both men and women to consider fertility preservation before deployment,” he says.
Mottla’s “perfect world” is getting a test run. Defense Secretary Ash Carter recently announced the Pentagon’s egg and sperm cryopreservation two-year pilot program.
While this is being well received, Mottla quickly noted that the VA must be brought up to speed.
Mottla shares with Miller, “Especially frustrating for veterans is the fact that military health care covers IVF for active duty members with certain injuries that compromise fertility, but once they phase into the VA system, that coverage is lost.”
It’s estimated that over one hundred facility clinics around the nation that are affiliated with the American Society for Reproductive Medicine and the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology offer a program providing heavily discount fertility treatment to injured veterans who have lost their ability to conceive. The program is called “Serving Our Veterans.”
These fertility clinics are being recognized for their kindness and generosity.
Protecting fertility in the military is an ongoing challenge. We need to be advocates for our active and retired military heroes, reminding the government that it’s their onus to “take care” of those who have volunteered to protect our country.