At any given time during the past year, about 8.5% of the women in the Navy were pregnant.
A benign statistic on the surface, that recently calculated number has disturbed Navy officials at commands around the world, fueled the grumblings of male sailors at the lower ranks and emerged as an issue that could curtail the dramatic opening of opportunities for women in the Navy that began more than a decade ago.
“The shipboard environment is a very environmentally unsafe atmosphere,” said Capt. Kathleen Bruyere, special assistant to the chief of naval personnel for women’s policy. “You have to worry about toxins and stress and movement and that sort of thing. That’s why we don’t let them stay there for the entire pregnancy. . . . Our No. 1 concern is and will be the health and well-being of the mother and the fetus.”
The Navy, almost exclusively the domain of men until the mid-1970s, has no mechanism to compensate for a significant number of unanticipated leaves due to pregnancy. Today, with enlisted women numbering 49,086, and 7,477 women officers, the Navy is nearly 10% female.
With the percentage of women increasing each year, Navy officials are taking a serious look at whether pregnancy among sailors and officers has an effect on the service’s readiness to respond in a crisis or time of war. Navy researchers in San Diego are about seven months into a three-year study of the question.
“Is there an effect of pregnancy--in whatever numbers it comes out to be--on readiness in the United States Navy? Are we having a problem accomplishing our mission because of this medical condition and whatever lost time is attributed to it?” Bruyere asked. “We were absolutely not able to make any conclusions because there was no data, it was inconclusive and comments were anecdotal.”
Commissioned a Study
According to a Navy report released a year ago, “Navy leaders view pregnancy and its effects on personnel turnover and lost time as a major consideration in decisions concerning employment of women in the Navy.” However, the report says, there was no data with which to assess the impact on the Navy, and a study was commissioned.
The 8.5% pregnancy rate finding is an early result of the study, which also found that 40% of the pregnancies were unplanned and 37% of the pregnant sailors were unmarried. The number of pregnancies among unmarried Navy women is about the same as the percentage in the general population, but the figure is particularly troublesome for a military service that demands that its members put in long and unpredictable hours while on shore and go to sea for six months at a time.
Once the study is concluded, the Navy will consider whether to make policy changes to ameliorate the effects of the increase of women in its ranks. Navy officials will not speculate publicly on
what those changes might be.
Fifteen years ago, a Navy woman who became pregnant was automatically discharged. Under current Navy policy, a woman may not embark on a cruise if she is pregnant at the time her ship is deployed. If a woman becomes pregnant while at sea, she may stay aboard the ship only until the 20th week of pregnancy. However, she may leave earlier if her medical condition warrants it or if she opts to resign from the Navy.
“Suddenly having to lose a valuable, contributing support person who is part of your team . . . is a matter of great concern to any manager or leader, whether you are ashore or on shipboard,” Bruyere said. “On shipboard, that’s of even more concern, because that person has to go away.”
Cmdr. Judy J. Glenn, a Navy nurse in the obstetrics and gynecology department at the Navy Hospital in Balboa Park was the first researcher to call attention to the pregnancy issue. During a 10-month period in 1986 and 1987, Glenn found that out of the 789 Navy women on active duty who registered for prenatal care at the hospital, 41% were single.
Single parents are a growing population in the Navy and society in general, Glenn said. With 52% of the women in her study under 22 years old, many had unrealistically optimistic expectations about caring for a child while remaining in the Navy, she said.
“We’re not talking about mature, responsible adults. We’re talking about very young adults,” Glenn said. “They’re 19 to 21, newly emancipated, sexually active and not using birth control.”
Sometimes, Glenn said, “reality doesn’t set in” until long after the baby is born.
“There’s this feeling that the military takes care of its own,” she said. “It gives you housing and medical care. Many people expect child care, too.” The Navy, however, has neither the legal obligation nor the resources to provide child care for the millions of military dependents around the world. “Definitely, child care is one of the biggest issues we have,” Glenn said.
“In the civilian world, if you have a problem with your child, you would call in sick or you just wouldn’t show up for work,” Glenn said. That option is not available in military life, where a person who does not show up for work can be disciplined or court-martialed for being absent without leave.
“A lot of them are naive,” she said. “They have no established household, no transportation.” Many of the single women are living on shipboard or in bachelor enlisted quarters and have no furniture and few possessions. Faced with the expense of setting up a household in San Diego, they are overwhelmed.
Often, the fathers take no responsibility for the children, she said. “The fathers of these babies are sailors,” Glenn said. “I don’t think we’ve taken a hard enough stance on that--that they’re personally and morally obligated.”
In response to the increasing need for specialized medical care for Navy women, Glenn helped organize the first active duty women’s clinic in the Navy three years ago at the 32nd Street Naval Station. That clinic and five branches that have since opened in the San Diego area provide a range of services, including counseling on legal rights, paternity issues, child care and the practical problems of setting up a household.
The clinic also answers questions from befuddled commanding officers who are unsure how to deal with pregnant women. “We get questions like, ‘Can a pregnant woman mop the floor or can she be required to work on the second floor of a building where there’s no elevator?’ ” Glenn said. Before the clinic was established, there were 17 health-care providers for active duty women in the San Diego area, many of them offering conflicting advice, she said.
The clinic also has developed an educational program aimed at young women who are not pregnant. “We’re not specifically doing it to decrease the pregnancy rate, but to decrease the unplanned pregnancy rate,” Glenn said.
Even for those who plan a pregnancy, continued life in the Navy can be hard. Shannon Stromberg, 22, a petty officer 3rd class, is expecting her first child and has another 3 1/2 years to serve. She has decided to stay in the Navy, but is worried about the expense of child care and her unpredictable hours at the Navy Hospital, where she works as a physical therapist. Her husband, a civilian, works full time.
Luckier Than Most
She acknowledges that she is luckier than many of her friends in the Navy because her work specialty does not require her to go to sea. “I know women who have kids who have to go to sea for six months. I get upset at the idea of being away for the weekend. I can’t imagine going away on a ship. . . . A lot of women come in (the Navy) and have no idea what they’re getting into.”
Stromberg said she knows of instances in which women have intentionally become pregnant either to avoid sea duty or to get out of the Navy altogether. However, she said she believes the number of women who do that is decreasing because the Navy is expanding opportunities for women, thereby decreasing the career frustration that makes them want to leave.
Although there are no statistics on this question, many male sailors complain privately that women use pregnancy as an excuse to take coveted shore jobs and avoid the tiresome six-month deployments.
Glenn’s statistics indicate that 70% of women who become pregnant decide to stay in the Navy, even though they generally are entitled to leave. Many stay for economic reasons, she said. “Women who resign when they’re pregnant have a very difficult time finding jobs in the San Diego job market.”
Cynthia Barton, associate director of the Armed Services YMCA on West Broadway, said her office counsels about 315 pregnant Navy women each year through an agreement with Glenn’s clinic.
“We find women who are ambivalent about the pregnancy, who are not being supported by the father of the baby,” Glenn said. “Maybe they’re still living in barracks, the pregnancy was unplanned and she doesn’t know what the heck she’s going to do.”
The service helps the women set up a household, provides emergency loans and, in some cases, helps to arrange for adoptions. A big problem facing many young Navy women who lived on base is the lack of transportation in the civilian community. Most cannot afford to buy a car, she said. The YMCA sponsors a volunteer service to provide emergency transportation and rides to medical appointments.
Still, not all the problems can be solved.
“We actually have women who return from maternity leave and have to go on a six-month deployment,” she said. “I’ve known women who have flown to Tennessee and left the baby with Mom for six months.”
A major problem facing new mothers in the Navy, single or married, is the lack of support from family and friends, she said. “She probably moved here from somewhere else, like most people in the Navy.”
The continuing Navy study, being conducted by Patricia J. Thomas, a psychologist at the Navy Personnel Research and Development Center in San Diego, will attempt to quantify the extent of the problem. She said she also plans to collect comparative data on Navy men on medical leave or out for reasons such as drug or legal problems.
“I think the real heart of my findings to date has been that women in the Navy are a reflection of their own-age cohort in society,” Thomas said. “What’s happening is very reasonable. We should anticipate this sort of pregnancy rate going on, because that’s what’s normal.”
The question that will face Navy officials in the years to come is whether normal is acceptable.
“Our pregnancy rate matches society,” Glenn said, “but can we work with that?”