A group of advocates is pushing Veterans Affairs leaders to expand abortion access to all pregnant veterans and dependents eligible for health care services, arguing such a move is within the department’s legal power.

Officials from the Vet Voice Foundation, which supports a host of veteran and Democratic causes, argued in a memo released Monday that the department has “the legal authority and moral obligation” to broaden its rules regarding abortion in light of the increasing number of states banning the procedure.

“Because the medical evidence supports the conclusion that access to abortion care preserves, promotes, and restores health, we urge [the VA Secretary] to expand access to cover abortion care in all cases,” the group wrote in its response to VA leaders’ request for public comment on the issue.

In September, department officials announced plans to offer abortion access to veterans and eligible dependents in cases of rape, incest and pregnancies that endanger the life or health of an individual. Officials also promised abortion counseling to any veteran in the VA medical system, for the opportunity of discussing both internal and external options regarding the procedure.

The move came in response to the Supreme Court decision in June which overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, which had legalized abortion nationwide. Since then, at least 25 states have started to place limits or already imposed restrictions on health care workers from providing abortions.

On Sept. 21, VA Secretary Denis McDonough announced that staff at an unnamed VA medical center had performed the first abortion under the new policy. No other details were released.

Congressional Republicans decried the move as both immoral and illegal, saying that existing law prohibits VA from providing any assistance to individuals seeking an abortion. They have threatened legal challenges to the move, though none officially have been filed so far.

But progressive groups have done the opposite, arguing for even broader rules and wider access to the services for pregnant veterans.

In late September, they rallied with Senate Democrats outside the Capitol to push for those changes.

“Just as I made my own decision about my own body when I signed up to go to war, I’m proud to join my colleagues today to spread the message far and wide: We need to hurry up and do more to protect reproductive rights for our nation’s heroes,” said Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, an Iraq War veteran and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

In their brief released Monday, officials from the Vet Voice Foundation argue that because “pregnancy can pose significant risks to the life and health of individuals,” access to elective abortions falls within the department’s responsibility to provide critical health services to its patients.

VA is collecting public comment on the new rules even while it puts them into effect ― another move that Republican opponents have called illegal.

Department health officials expect about 1,000 abortions to be performed by VA annually. Officials at Rand have said about 260,000 women veterans of reproductive age currently live in states with significant abortion restrictions.

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.

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