Troops and military family members would be able to get abortions at military medical centers if they pay for the procedures themselves under a bill introduced Thursday in Congress.
Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., a longstanding advocate of abortion rights, reintroduced the Military Access to Reproductive Care and Health (MARCH) for Military Women bill, which would permit physicians at military facilities to conduct abortions if female service members or Tricare beneficiaries use private funds to pay for the surgeries.
Earlier this year, Congress voted to expand access to abortion services for military health care beneficiaries, adding rape and incest to the list of permissible uses of Defense Department facilities and funds for the procedures.
Military beneficiaries also can receive abortions in military facilities if their lives would be in danger if they carried a fetus to full term.
Slaughter said her bill would “give military women the same access to reproductive healthcare as civilian American women.”
“It’s unconscionable that American women who swore an oath to defend the Constitution are being denied their constitutional rights,” Slaughter said.
She introduced similar legislation in 2011 but it failed in committee. Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, D-N.Y. introduced similar legislation in the Senate that year; it also failed.
The issue has swung back and forth numerous times over the years.
In 1978, Congress prohibited the use of DoD funds for abortions with certain exceptions, including when the life or health of the mother was in danger or in cases of rape or incest if the crime was reported promptly.
Later modifications to the law further restricted the exceptions, and in 1988, DoD issued a memorandum barring abortions in overseas military facilities.
Between 1993 and 1995, however, military medical facilities were allowed to perform abortions if paid for with private funds, under a directive issued by President Bill Clinton.
During that time, 27 abortions were performed in 1993 and 10 in 1994, although the abortions conducted in 1994 were all performed under the “life of the mother” clause, according to the Congressional Research Service.
CRS found that although the policy had been expanded, it did not necessarily broaden access, especially overseas. A survey of 44 medical officers stationed in Europe at the time found that all but one “refused to do the procedure,” and the one who said he would quickly reversed course after the survey, the CRS found.
The ban on fee-for-service abortions hits female troops serving overseas especially hard, Slaughter said. Speaking on the House floor on Thursday, she said military readiness is at risk when female soldiers, sailors, airmen or Marines must request leave to return to the U.S. for the procedure.
“Our service women deserve the right to determine their own destiny without risking their health unnecessarily,” Slaughter said.
She added that federal funds would not be used for the services and the military’s conscience clause, which allows doctors to decline to perform abortions, would remain intact.
Critics fighting previous attempts to pass similar legislation have argued that although female patients pay for the cost of the procedures themselves, federal funds are still used in the process because they cover hospital overhead and physician salaries and benefits.