Marie D. Faram, Navy Times, August 31, 2009
Pregnancy in the Navy is on the rise–but exactly how much isn’t exactly clear. That’s because the Navy says it doesn’t have the means to track exact pregnancy statistics servicewide. Instead, the service relies on surveys to assemble pregnancy statistics. The most recent data, collected in 2008, show that 19 percent of enlisted women said they were pregnant over the last year. That number was 10 percent among female officers.
Both of those are increases over the 2006 numbers, which had the enlisted pregnancy rate at 12 percent and officers at 8 percent.
But in the meantime, other statistics also indicate that pregnancy in the ranks is rising–especially among those in deploying units. That’s because the service does track–as a group–female sailors who have been sent to shore duty after their 20th week of pregnancy or those on an “operational deferment”–the guaranteed time the Navy gives women while they recover from childbirth.
These women are put on shore duty during their 12 months of deferment, then return to sea duty.
The Navy increased this deferment time in June 2007 from four to 12 months. As a result, the number of women leaving deploying units to have children has increased steadily from 1,770 in June 2006 to 3,125 as of Aug. 1. Junior enlisted women make up the bulk of those redirected to shore duty. Sailors in grades E-3 through E-5 account for 2,852 of the 3,125.
Overall, Miller [Stephanie Miller, head of women’s policy for Chief of Naval Personnel Vice Adm.] said, even with the rise in enlisted pregnancies, the Navy-wide annual average, which includes officer and enlisted, came in at 14.5 percent. That’s just below the “nation-al birth rate” of 15 percent, which the Navy says is a comparable metric.
Miller says the rise in pregnancies is a good sign for the Navy, indicating that more women feel comfortable that having children can be compatible with Navy service.
‘The Navy strongly believes that having children and a career in the Navy don’t have to be at odds,” she said.
Progress, but some problems
It’s been a long road from the early days of women in the Navy when pregnancy meant an automatic discharge, she said. Through the years, that policy has changed gradually. As it evolved, she said, women were offered the chance to stay in or get out after learning they were pregnant.
“Now, discharge is the exception rather than the rule,” Miller said. That’s because the Navy has learned if they want to retain good female officers and sailors, they also have to provide opportunities for having a family.
A senior enlisted woman from the destroyer Ross said her ship was having an epidemic of pregnancies in the crew, with 15 women becoming pregnant in the past year among a female population that averaged 36 over the same period of time.
Another said that she’s seen too many women elect to get pregnant to avoid making deployments of six months or longer–swapping that for an 18- to 21-year commitment to raise a child. Another said she still sees too many young male sailors eyeing newly reporting female sailors as targets of opportunity more than shipmates. More counseling in responsible behavior, she said, was needed immediately after these young sailors get to their command.
Miller said she couldn’t comment specifically on the Ross or what led to that command’s increase in pregnancies, but she said the dynamic is shifting as more senior women take on roles at sea.
“We see a decline in pregnancy rates on ships where there is a strong presence of females in leadership roles at the command,” she said. “It’s only been 15 years or so since the combat exclusion was lifted, and it’s taken time to grow these women.”