Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has unveiled a new plan to appeal that is intended to draw young recruits and their families by offering to freeze human sperm and ova. Besides having standardized military maternity leave at 12 weeks for all service branches, the move is supposed to allow troops to make family a priority while in service. “We can help our men and women preserve their ability to start a family, even if they suffer certain combat injuries,” Carter said. “That’s why we will cover the cost of freezing sperm or eggs through a pilot program for active-duty service members.”
The plan is focused on retaining women in military service throughout their child0bearing years. The New York Times reported that women who reach 10 years of service— which is what the Defense secretary said was their “their peak years for starting a family” currently have a retention rate that is 30 percent lower than men. “For women who are midgrade officers and enlisted personnel,” Carter said, “this benefit will demonstrate that we understand the demands upon them and want to help them balance commitments to force and family. We want to retain them in the military.”
The process of freezing sperm and eggs is not a simple process, according to Professor Arthur Caplan of New York University’s Langone Medical Center who is a leader in bioethics. Caplan said “Freezing sperm and eggs is not like freezing chicken for dinner,” and added, “What happens if you die—can your wife use it? And, what if your mother wants grandchildren and your wife doesn’t, does that mean the sperm can be used with a surrogate? If you’re cognitively disabled, can it be used? And what happens if the company housing your sperm or eggs goes bankrupt?”
But the Defense Department presses on, despite ethical and funding questions. “By providing this additional peace of mind for our young service members, we provide our force greater confidence about their future,” Defense Secretary Carter said.
Another part of what DoD calls its Force of the Future initiative is improved child care services. As part of his February 4 announcement, Carter said that DoD will explore increasing its coverage of fertility services to members of the military. "We can help our men and women preserve their ability to start a family, even if they suffer certain combat injuries," said Carter. "That's why we will cover the cost of freezing sperm or eggs through a pilot program for active-duty service members."
This benefit will be offered to anyone serving the military as well as troops headed for deployment.
According to Carter, the benefit will be offered to any service member who requests it as well as troops anticipating a deployment. Carter claimed that the egg- and sperm-freezing program will give troops "peace of mind" and "greater flexibility" in deciding when to start a family.
The majority of members of the military are in their peak child-bearing or fathering years: Nearly half of all enlisted personnel are under age 26, with the next largest group, 22%, being ages 26 to 30. More than 42% of officers are between the ages of 26 and 35, according to Defense Department data. As of 2014, women made up 15% of the active-duty force of 1.3 million, and are expected to increase.
Besides the more than 1,300 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts suffered injuries to their groin regions and genitalia that require advanced reproductive surgeries. And advocacy groups and military spouses have pushed for expanded fertility services for service members, claiming that DoD and Veterans Affairs should pay for advanced reproductive technologies for troops whose infertility is related to their military service as well as egg and sperm freezing prior to a combat deployment.
Currently, seven military treatment facilities offer in-vitro fertilization and artificial insemination to active-duty personnel and their spouses at cost if they meet eligibility criteria. Tricare, the military's civilian health benefits program, covers diagnoses of illnesses that cause infertility and correction of any medical issues that might be the source of the problem but does not cover IVF or artificial insemination. Secretary Carter did not provide information about the added cost the program poses for taxpayers.
Pregnancy poses a problem for military commanders deployed in the field. In 2013, 99 pregnant soldiers from Britain in Iraq were sent home and 102 from Afghanistan. They were not required to submit to pregnancy tests before deployment or in the field due to privacy concerns.