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Pregnancy waiver was 1st at Naval Academy

Jul. 24, 2009 - 03:52PM   |   Last Updated: Jul. 24, 2009 - 03:52PM  |  
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Top Defense Department officials allowed a pregnant Naval Academy midshipman to graduate in May, the first known such case in the 33 years women have been admitted to the school.

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Top Defense Department officials allowed a pregnant Naval Academy midshipman to graduate in May, the first known such case in the 33 years women have been admitted to the school.

The woman, whom the Navy would not identify because of privacy concerns, is now an ensign, but she was reassigned from her original sea duty to a shore tour because of the pregnancy, Navy spokesman Cmdr. Cappy Surette said.

Officials say the Naval Academy's policies forbidding marriage and pregnancy — or, in the case of men, being responsible for a child — stand. Because of the proximity to graduation, this pregnant midshipman was a special case, they said.

"There were unique circumstances surrounding this case, to include the fact that she had completed all academic requirements for graduation," Cmdr. Brenda Malone, spokeswoman for the chief of naval personnel, wrote in a statement.

The Naval Academy administration discovered the midshipman was pregnant a few weeks before the May 22 graduation, and that "as a result, her eligibility for graduation and commissioning would require review," Surette said.

A Navy official with knowledge of the situation said the academy learned about the pregnancy when the midshipman declined a set of routine inoculations to prepare her for sea duty, worrying they would harm her baby. The source was not authorized to discuss the story and asked not to be identified.

The woman's parents came to Annapolis to meet with her and the administration to discuss her options, the source said. Under academy regulations, she could take a yearlong leave of absence and return to finish her coursework, or resign and be required to pay back the cost of her education, about $150,000. Regulations also state that if a follow-on pregnancy test shows that she is no longer pregnant, she can stay at the academy. The policy does not explicitly spell out abortion as an option.

Complicating this situation, the source said, was that the midshipman was engaged to the baby's father and they planned to marry within a month of her graduating. If she took the leave of absence, she would spend the interim still a midshipman, forbidden from marrying, meaning the wedding would have to be canceled and her child born out of wedlock. Also, when the issue came to light, the woman had two exams left, meaning she would spend a year away from Annapolis, then return to take just two tests.

Rather than take one of the options, the midshipman and her family lobbied for an exemption so she could graduate, be commissioned, and be married, the source said.

On May 19 — three days before graduation — then-Acting Navy Secretary B.J. Penn sent a waiver request for the midshipman to then-Acting Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Gail McGinn. Penn had the authority to permit a midshipman to graduate, and McGinn had the authority to permit her to be commissioned. Both gave it, and the midshipman received her diploma May 22 with the rest of the graduating class, shaking hands with President Barack Obama at the academy's football stadium.

Surette said Pentagon involvement is necessary when it comes to these waivers. He said he did not know whether Naval Academy Superintendent Vice Adm. Jeffrey Fowler was initially against granting the waiver. Surette said that by the time the waiver was issued, Naval Academy leadership agreed with Penn's and McGinn's decision.

The academy declined to arrange interviews with Fowler and Commandant of Midshipmen Capt. Matt Klunder. Navy spokesmen declined to say how far along the midshipman was in her pregnancy.

Surette said neither members of Congress nor Obama administration officials were involved with granting the midshipman's waiver. A White House spokeswoman had given no comment as of Friday afternoon.

Penn's waiver came two days after Obama delivered a commencement address at the University of Notre Dame, an event that included criticism from anti-abortion groups about the president's support for women's reproductive rights.

Although the Naval Academy has admitted women since 1976, it has kept detailed statistics about pregnancies since only 2005, according to information provided by Surette.

Other waivers

May's pregnant midshipman became the fourth since 2005 to require a waiver to graduate because of parental responsibilities; the three earlier cases were men who fathered children.

Four women since 2005 have taken yearlong leaves of absence to have babies, and two have resigned. There was no information immediately available on how many times the administration has learned a woman was pregnant, been shown proof she ended her pregnancy, and permitted her to continue at Annapolis.

Academy policy

The Naval Academy Midshipman Regulation Manual's policy on pregnancy and parenthood states: "Parenthood is defined as having legal, financial or custodial obligations for a child or children, as determined by court adjudication, self-admission, or other evidence. Any Midshipman who becomes pregnant, causes the pregnancy of another, or incurs the obligations of parenthood, must report the condition to their Chain of Command."

"Midshipmen who become pregnant and choose not to resign will be allowed to go on a leave of absence of no more than one year. Midshipmen who are pregnant or have incurred the obligations of parenthood and who fail to resign or request a leave of absence will be separated," according to the manual.

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Staff writer atilghman@atpco.com?subject=Question from NavyTimes.com reader">Andrew Tilghman contributed to this report.

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