Senators press DOD on abortion protections for service members

A group of eight Senators is urging Pentagon officials to ensure that service members can get access to an abortion even if the medical procedure becomes illegal in states where they are based.  

The lawmakers, led by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), are pressing the Department of Defense (DOD) to act quickly on the matter following the leaked draft ruling from the Supreme Court made public last week. The draft document indicates the court is set to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in the United States. 

“If the opinion goes into effect, hundreds of thousands of troops, dependents, and DOD civilians will lose access to safe abortions and potentially face criminal prosecution for exercising a fundamental human right — creating a scenario where servicemembers’ reproductive and healthcare rights would become dependent on their duty station,” read a letter the senators sent to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Thursday. 

The lawmakers, which consist of seven Democrats and Independent Sen. Angus King (Maine), implore Austin to implement protective policies in the military before any ruling goes into effect. 

“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,” they write.  

“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.” 

Democrats had sought to codify Roe v. Wade in response to the leaked draft opinion, but Senate Republicans, joined by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), blocked the legislation on Wednesday.  

The Supreme Court is now expected to vote this summer to overturn its landmark 1973 decision on abortion rights, leaving the decision of whether to ban or criminalize the procedure to individual states.  

The Pentagon has largely been mum on how it would support service members seeking an abortion should the decision be overturned. 

In response to questions about a potential abortion ban, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby last week said he’d “rather not get into an abortion-centric discussion” but that “the health and well-being of our men and women are paramount concerns of department leadership.”  

He added, “We certainly want to make sure that whoever they are and wherever they are that they know that we’re serious about that pledge and that we are serious about making sure they have the information, the tools that they need to make the most informed decisions for their own personal health and well-being.” 

In their letter, meanwhile, the lawmakers argue that the threat to reproductive and health care rights would hurt military retention, as it would make service members’ ability to seek an abortion dependent on where they are stationed.  

“A soldier at Fort Drum would retain their personal autonomy while a soldier at Fort Hood would not,” they write, referring to bases in New York and Texas, respectively. “In places like Missouri, legislators have sought to ban abortions even for ectopic pregnancies, leaving a servicemember or their dependent facing a choice of death or criminal activity. This outcome would violate the trust servicemembers place in the Armed Forces when they swear an oath to defend the Constitution.” 

The other senators to sign onto the letter were Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), a retired Army National Guard lieutenant colonel who lost both legs while serving in Iraq; Gary Peters (D-Mich.), who served in the Navy Reserves; Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii); Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.); Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.); and Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.). 

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