Barracks to babies: A PA military spouse’s struggle with fertility across 5 states

Andrew and Julie Eshelman and their daughter.

By Ashley Adams

June 6, 2024

This Pennsylvania couple had to navigate fertility treatments during military moves to states with good, bad, and scary reproductive health care rights.

What’s it like to go through infertility treatments in five different states? The Eshelman family of Schuylkill Haven, PA, can tell you.

“I’ve seen the stories and interviews with people from states like Texas who have been denied care and who experienced a miscarriage and didn’t get the care they needed,” said Julie Eshelman. “To be in a state where I might not be able to make the choice that is best for me and my health [would be] unbelievable.”

It’s something she thinks about a lot. Julie’s husband, Andrew, serves full-time in the US Army Reserves, and it requires the Eshelmans to relocate frequently. While they currently live in Schuylkill Haven, they were living in Arizona when they found out they’d need to use assisted reproductive technology to have children.

“We knew we wanted to start a family,” Julie said. “And it looked like this was the way we needed to do it. I knew it was going to be a long, difficult process but I didn’t think it would be as rough as it was.”

In 2019, Julie underwent a successful infertility treatment called intrauterine insemination, or IUI—also referred to as artificial insemination. IUI increases the chances of pregnancy by placing sperm directly into the uterus during a medical procedure.

Soon after, Andrew received orders to relocate from Arizona to Illinois. During the move, however, Julie suffered a miscarriage.

“We were actually in New Mexico for the night when I had my first miscarriage,” she said. “The ER told me to follow up with my obstetrician the next day, but I didn’t have one. I wasn’t seen for 40 days for follow-up care. From there, we had to start all over again.”

In Illinois, the Eshelmans underwent IUI again—and had a second miscarriage in 2019, then a third in early 2020. With the clock ticking on an inevitable relocation, the couple turned to in vitro fertilization (IVF).

“We just had to wait for everything to open,” Julie said, noting that their first appointment was conducted virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

IVF is a medical process where an egg is fertilized by sperm in a clinical laboratory. Starting it was a decision the Eshelmans didn’t take lightly, for multiple reasons—not least of which was the mounting costs from so many infertility centers and treatments across the country.

“We gave up our second car to cover some of the doctor costs,” Julie said. “It was difficult for me to find a job when I had to take off all the time for appointments. We didn’t take a vacation for five years. I went seven years without coming home to Pennsylvania to visit family because we couldn’t afford it. The only thing insurance covered was the testing.”

But all of those treatments and procedures resulted in Julie becoming pregnant again, and in 2021, the Eshelmans welcomed their baby girl.

“After everything I went through, I now have this beautiful, spunky daughter,” Julie said. “It was all worth it.”

Caught in political crosshairs

Three weeks after the birth of their daughter in 2021, Andrew was transferred to Kansas. Though they’d always hoped for two children, the couple decided to hold off on starting another round of IVF, and in July of that year, they were transferred again—this time to Pennsylvania.

Given the nature of Andrew’s job, Julie said the possibility of living in a state where access to reproductive health care is limited is constantly looming over them. It’s why, when they were undergoing IVF for their daughter, they decided that their frozen embryos may not always move with them.

“We waited until after the election to start the process of moving my eggs, because we didn’t know what the political environment was going to be and we didn’t want to waste our money to move the embryos if something would happen,” she said.

It turned out that the couple had legitimate cause for concern. Though President Joe Biden won the 2020 election, the US Supreme Court retained a Republican majority. And in 2022, they overturned Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that had protected a level of abortion care nationwide. With that reversal, the Court opened the possibilities for other reproductive health care to be restricted by individual state government majorities.

Like, for example, in February 2024, when the all-Republican Alabama Supreme Court ruled that frozen embryos were considered children under state law. The ruling halted all IVF treatments in Alabama.

“It is very much an attack on the 1 in 6 people that face infertility,” Julie said. “It feels very personal.”

Experts say it also set a dangerous precedent. Right now, a bill proposed by Republicans in the US House of Representatives is awaiting consideration by the Judiciary Committee. It’s called the Life at Conception Act, and it defines a human being as “all stages of life, including the moment of fertilization.”

Meanwhile, their Democratic colleagues are backing the Access to Family Building Act, which would protect IVF rights nationally. The bill was sponsored by Pennsylvania Rep. Susan Wild, and is currently in the Health Subcommittee.

Over in Schuylkill Haven, the Eshelmans are packing up for another move—this time to Virginia. Julie said after so much uncertainty trying to have a family, she realized that she could turn her experiences into a little bit of stability for others in her situation.

“Throughout all of the frustration, and all of the heartache, we were looking for someplace to turn to,” she said. “So we took all of the crap that we were dealt and created something, some place for our military community to come to for support.”

With Andrew by her side, Julie launched the Building Military Families Network, a nonprofit organization that provides support, education, and resources to military and veteran families navigating the challenges of starting a family.

“I don’t want the next generation to have to fight the battles we have, or have the financial hardships we had,” she said. “When I was going through it, I needed support. I was looking for resources on family building. I didn’t really have anyone. Hopefully, they won’t have to go through what I went through.”

Author

  • Ashley Adams

    In her 16 years in the communications industry, Ashley Adams has worn many hats, including news reporter, public relations writer, marketing specialist, copy editor and technical writer. Ashley grew up in Berks County and has since returned to her roots to raise her three children.

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