Two senators are teaming up to change an “unfair, antiquated” policy that requires students at military academies who get pregnant to choose between abandoning their military career or their child.
Last week, Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., introduced the Candidates Afforded Dignity, Equality, and Training, or CADET, Act of 2021, which would ensure that students at military universities have the option to continue their education while also maintaining their parental rights.
Under current policy, students at military schools are not allowed to have dependents. As a result, women who get pregnant or men who father a child have three options. To stay at school, they can either get an abortion or give the baby up for adoption, severing their legal and financial responsibility. To keep the baby, they must leave the military academy. Any student that leaves the school in their junior or senior year has to repay the government for their education, since they will not fulfill their commitment to serve in the military after graduation.
“This policy is unfair, antiquated, and unacceptable,” Cruz told Defense One in a statement. “The CADET Act is a commonsense step to ensure the brave young women of our armed forces have the right level of support to continue their academy training and go on to fulfill their future service as commissioned officers while raising their family.”
It’s not clear how many students have been affected by this policy, but the number is likely small. Seven cadets have either resigned or been disenrolled from the Air Force Academy over the past decade because they had dependents, said Dean Miller, the school’s chief of media relations. The Coast Guard Academy is not aware of any cadet pregnancies in the last 10 years, said David Santos, a public affairs officer at the school.
The Naval Academy and U.S. Military Academy at West Point did not return a request for comment.
Even if the population that’s directly affected is small, this change would be an important symbolic step towards gender equality in the military, said Katherine Kuzminski, a director of the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for New American Security.
While the policy applies to both men and women, it overwhelmingly affects women, since they would show signs of a pregnancy and would be physically limited while pregnant, Kuzminski said. Men sometimes don’t even know they’ve gotten a woman pregnant, and even if they did, they would be able to maintain the school’s rigorous physical requirements while awaiting the baby’s birth and a paternity test.
The rule was originally put into place because officials argued that studying at the service academies is “all-consuming,” akin to a deployment, Kuzminski said. But the changes proposed by Cruz and Gillibrand bring the schools in line with how the Defense Department treats troops who have children and deploy.
The bill would allow women who get pregnant to take a year off from the academy to carry the child, give birth, and recover postpartum. They would return to the academy and graduate a year later than originally expected. They would not have to sign away their parental rights, but they would have to appoint someone to be the child’s guardian while they finish school, including giving that person full power of attorney, similar to the family care plans that single parents in the military must create when deployed, Kuzminski said. Once the student graduates, they would be able to take over parental responsibilities.
The bill has bipartisan support from an unlikely pairing. Cruz and Gillibrand, whose office did not respond to a request for comment, have also worked together on efforts to reform the military justice system for sexual assault victims, but are on opposite sides of the political spectrum on many other issues.
Yet this effort appeals to priorities for both sides of the aisle, according to Kuzminski, who said she is optimistic Congress will pass the measure.
“From the more conservative side of the Senate, this is seen as a pro-life movement, if you remove the choice of…you can pay for a private abortion and stay or you can carry the pregnancy to term and you must leave,” she said. “It’s also a very feminist and progressive move in that it doesn’t punish women for making the choice that’s best for them and their family.”
Kuzminski said she does not predict any objections from the service academies or the Department of Defense, because it will allow the military to retain top-tier students who have already received some training and volunteered to serve.
“If you’re looking at a cadet who finds [themself] in a parental situation, they’ve already been vetted, received congressional recommendations,” and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of training, she said. “You’re not just losing out on the talent of those four years, you’re losing out on the talent of a potential 20-, 30-, or 40-year career after that.”
A source familiar with the exchanges between Cruz and the academies said the Air Force Academy and Naval Academy have both expressed general support for the bill.
The Air Force Academy and Coast Guard Academy both declined to comment on pending legislation. The Pentagon did not respond to a question about if they support the bill.