Senators upset over threats to abortion rights are pushing Defense Department officials to guarantee that female servicemembers will have access to the medical procedure even if it is outlawed in states where they are stationed.
In a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Thursday, the senators (seven Democrats and independent Maine Sen. Angus King) said military leaders need to weigh in on the issue now — even before an expected Supreme Court ruling on the issue later this year — to provide reassurance and clarity to troops now unsure of their rights.
“At a minimum, you and your staff should consider implementing policy changes to allow servicemembers to obtain [special permission] in order to travel out of state for reproductive healthcare and abortions if they are stationed in a jurisdiction that curtails these rights,” the group wrote.
“The men and women who join the military sacrifice an incredible amount in order to serve their country. We owe it to these servicemembers to look after them and ensure they have the ability to continue accessing safe reproductive healthcare no matter where in the nation their military service sends them.”
At issue is a leaked draft ruling from the Supreme Court made public by Politico last week which would overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision which legalized abortion across America.
The move — expected to be publicly released later this summer — could leave the decision of whether or not to criminalize the procedure to individual states. At least 13 states already have measures in effect which would outlaw the procedure if the Supreme Court overturns the 1973 decision, including Texas, home to more than 100,000 active-duty troops.
Last week, following reporter questions on the possible abortion ban, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said “the health and well-being of our men and women are paramount concerns of department leadership” but declined to comment directly on the issue until the ruling is officially released.
Among the senators who wrote to Austin on Thursday were Illinois Democrat Tammy Duckworth, who lost both legs while serving with the Army National Guard in Iraq, and Michigan Democrat Gary Peters, who served 15 years in the Navy Reserves.
They wrote that potential inconsistency in state laws would create “a scenario where servicemembers’ reproductive and healthcare rights would become dependent on their duty station.
“A soldier at Fort Drum (in New York) would retain their personal autonomy while a soldier at Fort Hood (in Texas) would not,” they said. “This outcome would violate the trust servicemembers place in the Armed Forces when they swear an oath to defend the Constitution.”
They argued Austin has the power — and responsibility — to implement new policies to ease those access concerns, calling it a potential recruiting and retention issue.
During a House Appropriations Committee hearing on Thursday, Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston told lawmakers his service is looking into the issue, but no decisions have yet been made.
“We are drafting policies that ensure we are taking care of our soldiers in an appropriate way,” he said. “We are in collaboration, there are drafts [of new policies] if it were to be overturned, but that would be the decision of the Secretary of the Army.”
On Wednesday, lawmakers failed to advance legislation which would have codified access to abortion services nationwide even in the event of a new Supreme Court ruling. The measure passed the House but failed in the Senate, largely along party lines in both chambers.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.