Justice  /  Explainer

The Better Roe: The Case of Struck v. Secretary of Defense

When Susan Struck fought being discharged for pregnancy from the US Air Force, it brought the right to choose into a different light.

One day in the spring of 1970, while stationed in Phù Cát, Vietnam, air force nurse Susan Struck felt dizzy. She sat down, wondering what the problem was, and then it hit her: she was pregnant. Struck had joined the US Air Force Nurse Corps partly to avoid the traditional path of marriage and family that many of her friends had followed. She loved nursing, had even volunteered for a war zone assignment, and had no plans to trade her career for a family. But when she realized she was pregnant, she had only two options: face immediate discharge for pregnancy and leave the air force or have an abortion and remain on duty.

Struck decided to have an abortion. At the time, the US military permitted abortions in its hospitals, though the procedure’s availability in Vietnam varied, and so Struck planned to ask for permission to fly to Japan for the procedure. But after a dream about her fetus, she drew on her Catholic faith and decided to continue with the pregnancy and surrender the baby for adoption. She also resolved not to be discharged, so she hid her pregnancy for as long as she could. She was about seven and a half months along when her hospital’s chief nurse confronted her. The following day, Struck was on an airplane back to the United States, where she began a two-year legal battle to remain in the military.

Since formally admitting women to the armed forces, the US military had imposed regulations that restricted women’s sexuality and pregnancy, driven by both prevailing gender norms and a desire to safeguard the women’s and the institution’s reputations through a public image of heterosexual respectability. But in other ways, policies increasingly reflected a moderate approach to women’s concerns, and by 1970, military abortion policies outpaced much of the rest of the nation’s.

The Department of Defense (DOD) attempted to standardize its reproduction policies in 1966, a year after the US Supreme Court guaranteed married couples the right to reproductive privacy in Griswold v. Connecticut. The DOD ordered that birth control be made available to servicewomen and to the wives and daughters of servicemen worldwide, and it permitted abortion and sterilization “for medical reasons only.” Federal law regulated military medical care, but as states passed widely varying abortion laws in the late 1960s, many medical officers were unsure whether state laws applied. In early 1970, the surgeons general sought clarification from the DOD.