Senate Democrats urge Pentagon to safeguard abortion access

The majority of Senate Democrats on Monday pressed Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to maintain access to abortion care for service members and their dependents, warning that restricting such care could hurt national security.  

In a letter led by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, the 38 lawmakers tell Austin that “it is imperative that the Department of Defense continue to take action to protect the rights of service members and their families to access abortion care.” 

“State laws restricting or prohibiting our service members from accessing reproductive care send a message that the United States does not trust those who serve in uniform – whom we trust to protect our country – to make their own decisions about their health care and families,” the letter reads. “These laws also jeopardize the health and overall readiness of our military.” 

The letter was coauthored with Sens. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and signed by 36 Democrats as well as Independent Sens. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and Angus King (Maine). 

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade last June, 13 states have outlawed most abortions, with several others severely restricting the procedure.   

The RAND Corporation estimates that 40 percent of active-duty women who serve in the United States face limited or no access to abortion services where they are stationed, according to the letter. 

Prior to the court’s decision, the Department of Defense allowed abortion services at military treatment facilities under limited circumstances, including pregnancy caused by rape or incest or endangering the health and life of the woman. In most other cases, service members were required to pay out of pocket themselves at civilian medical facilities. 

Since Roe v. Wade was overturned, Pentagon officials have vowed to continue to allow abortion services at military treatment facilities, including in states where the procedure is no longer allowed or limited.  

Austin first announced in October that the Pentagon would also provide leave to service members and their dependents for travel required to access reproductive health care and would reimburse individuals for the trek.  

Policies released in February gave additional details and guidance on how the directives would function. 

In his October decision, Austin argued that restricting access to reproductive care “will interfere with our ability to recruit, retain, and maintain the readiness of a highly qualified force.” 

Senate Republicans, however, are skeptical, with 12 asking Austin for the data to back up his readiness claims. 

Led by Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the lawmakers in a letter earlier this month accused the Pentagon of a “blatant attempt to circumvent numerous federal statutes” and policies that “can only be interpreted as a purely political action taken without consulting Congress.” 

The divide has also led to a hold on President Biden’s nominations for top Pentagon positions since February, with Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.), last week vowing to maintain the freeze until the policy is altered. 

And in a contentious Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last week, Sen. Ted Budd (R-N.C.) included abortion access in the military as among so-called “social experiments” and “radical agendas,” at the Pentagon.  

In Monday’s letter, Senate Democrats argue that state laws restricting abortions will not stop service members from needing or seeking care.  

“Abortion restrictions and bans only force service members to travel farther to states that have not restricted abortion, further compromising both the financial security of the service members and military readiness,” they write. “Our service members should not be forced to needlessly risk their personal health and safety for routine health care simply because they pledged to protect and defend our nation.” 

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