Jan 25 (Reuters) - Just over ten percent of women in the military said in 2008 that they'd had an unintended pregnancy in the previous year - a figure significantly higher than rates in the general public, according to a U.S. study.
The findings, which appeared in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology, come just as the Pentagon has said it will lift the ban on women in front-line combat jobs starting in 2016.
"Clearly unintended pregnancy is an important public health problem for everyone," said Daniel Grossman from the University of California, San Franciso, who worked on the study.
"It seems particularly important for the military population because obviously it can disrupt a woman's career."
The Pentagon could not provide a comment by deadline.
Access to birth control can be a problem for troops deployed for long periods of time, and if women do become pregnant, abortion is legally restricted on U.S. military bases. Women who get pregnant while overseas must be evacuated.
Grossman's results are based on surveys of more than 7,000 active-duty women, between 18 and 44 years old, conducted in 2008, the last such available survey.
About 800 women said they'd had an unintended pregnancy in the previous year, including a similar proportion of deployed and non-deployed women.
In total, about 900 women had been unable to deploy in the previous year due to a pregnancy, whether intentional or not.
The rate of unintended pregnancy - 105 for each 1,000 women - was a small increase over the rate in 2005 of 97 per 1,000 servicewomen. That figure is also 50 percent higher than rates of unintended pregnancy among similarly aged women in the general, non-military public.
"It does definitely have implications for troop readiness, ability to deploy (and) troops in combat missions if they are potentially at high risk for unintended pregnancy and pregnant women can't be deployed," said Vinita Goyal, who has studied unintended pregnancy in female veterans at Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.
Grossman said confusion and concern over military policies on sexual activity may affect women's access to contraception.
Consensual sex among members of the same rank is legal, But women may be afraid to ask for condoms, for example, for fear people will think they are violating policy, said Goyal, who was not involved in the study.
Sexual assault in the military may be another contributor to high rates of unintended pregnancy, the researchers noted.
"There are studies showing anywhere between 20 and 40 percent of servicewomen (experience) rape or attempted rape during their military career, and the vast majority don't report it," said Grossman, who is also the vice president for research at Ibis Reproductive Health.
According to data from the Department of Defense, there were between two and three sexual assaults for every 1,000 active duty soldiers, man and women, reported in 2011.
Earlier this month, laws were amended to allow victims of rape or incest to get abortions at military bases, but otherwise, except when the mother's life is in danger, abortion on bases is illegal. SOURCE: bit.ly/V82WWC (Reporting from New York by Genevra Pittman at Reuters Health; editing by Elaine Lies)