LONDON – Hours after a British soldier in Afghanistan told medics she was suffering from stomach pains, the Royal Artillery gunner unexpectedly gave birth to a boy – the first child ever born to a member of Britain’s armed forces in combat.
Britain’s defense ministry said Thursday the soldier told authorities she had not been aware she was pregnant and only consulted doctors on the day that she went into labor.
The soldier, who arrived in Afghanistan in March, delivered the child Tuesday at Camp Bastion, the vast desert camp in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province where Prince Harry is deployed and a Taliban attack last week killed two U.S. Marines.
“Mother and baby are both in a stable condition in the hospital and are receiving the best possible care,” the ministry said in a statement. It said a team of doctors would fly out to Afghanistan in the coming days to help the soldier and her son return safely to Britain.
The U.K. does not allow female soldiers to deploy on operation if they are pregnant. Although the soldier’s child was conceived before her tour of duty began in March, she is not likely to face censure. Britain has sent female soldiers home from wars after they became pregnant – including about 60 from Afghanistan – but hasn’t previously had a servicewoman go into labor in a war zone.
In 2009, the U.S. military in Iraq issued a policy that could punish soldiers who became pregnant there and their sexual partners – then quickly rescinded it after a storm of criticism.
The British soldier, a citizen of Fiji, is one of about 500 British military women serving in Afghanistan. She is also among around 2,000 Fijians who serve in the British military, even though the country became independent from Britain in 1970.
Camp Bastion, which hosts the U.S. Camp Leatherneck, is home to most of Britain’s 9,500 soldiers in Afghanistan, including Prince Harry – who arrived there earlier this month to serve as an attack helicopter gunner. Last Friday, a Taliban assault on the base ended up with two U.S. marines killed and six American fighter jets destroyed.
Belinda Phipps, chief executive of the National Childbirth Trust, a British parenting charity, also suggested the soldier’s demanding work could explain why she either didn’t know she was pregnant, or had attempted to ignore the signs.
“It could be that she was so very focused on other things, and because she was in a life-or-death scenario, that she simply didn’t recognize that she was pregnant,” Phipps said.
Phipps said the pregnancy may not have been obvious to the soldier’s colleagues. “Not everyone has a very big baby bump, some women carry their baby far inside,” she said.
Patrick O’Brien, a consultant obstetrician at University College London Hospital, said cases of unnoticed pregnancies were unusual, but that he encountered at least one each year.
“There are some women who have very irregular periods, often women who are very fit and exercise a lot. There are women who don’t have sickness during pregnancy. Some women – particularly those who are overweight – don’t recognize they have put on weight, or feel the baby moving,” O’Brien said.
Many cases involved women who refused to accept that they were pregnant and attempted to disguise it, particularly young women living at home.
“It’s not just that they hide the pregnancy from their parents, they often become in denial of the pregnancy,” he said.
“If you have a combination of any or all of those things, a pregnancy can go undetected, or the woman can be in denial of it if the implications to their life are so great,” said O’Brien, a spokesman for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologist.
A study published in 2011 by Glasgow’s Victoria Infirmary said that denial of pregnancy was more common than expected, suggesting it occurred in around 1 in 2,500 births.
In a 2002 German survey of Berlin obstetric hospitals, researchers found that 40 percent of women who didn’t realize they were pregnant had seen doctors who also failed to spot the signs.