Department of Defense to pay for service members to travel for abortions

army U.S. Army Southern European Task Force, Africa|Flickr|CC BY 2.0

The Department of Defense is set to create an allowance to pay for service members to travel to obtain abortions, saying the effects of the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade “interfere with our ability to recruit, retain, and maintain the readiness of a highly qualified force.”

In an Oct. 20 memo, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin directed the DoD to “establish travel and transportation allowances” so that service members and their dependents can access abortion in states that offer it. More than a dozen states now outlaw abortion with limited exceptions. 

“The recent Supreme Court ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization has impacted access to reproductive health care with readiness, recruiting, and retention implications for the Force,” Austin wrote.

“Since the Supreme Court’s decision, we have heard concerns from many of our Service members and their families about the complexity and the uncertainty that they now face in accessing reproductive health care, including abortion services. We also recognize that recent developments may create legal and financial risk for our health care providers as they carry out their lawful federal duties.

“I am committed to the Department taking all appropriate action, within its authority and consistent with applicable federal law, as soon as possible to ensure that our Service members and their families can access reproductive health care and our health care providers can operate effectively,” the memo reads.

The new allowances will not cover the costs of abortion procedures, and military doctors are only allowed to provide abortions in limited circumstances. The Hyde Amendment restricts federal funding of abortions to include only those cases involving rape, incest, or maternal mortality risk. 

A Knights of Columbus/Marist poll released in January found that a majority of Americans oppose the use of tax dollars to fund elective abortion procedures, either in the United States or abroad. 

“The actions outlined in this memorandum will be executed as soon as possible. All actions will be completed no later than the end of this calendar year, to the maximum extent possible,” Austin wrote. 

Austin also advised DoD health care providers that “they may not notify or disclose reproductive health information to commanders unless this presumption is overcome by specific exceptions set forth in policy, such as risk of harm to mission, occupational safety requirements, or acute medical conditions interfering with duty.”

In addition, Austin touted the military’s provision of “family planning” services, instructing the DoD to “conduct a comprehensive contraception education campaign to enhance Service members’ awareness of the resources available to them and their families, including emergency contraception. That education campaign will also highlight the fact that the Department of Defense has eliminated TRICARE co-pays for medical contraceptive services, including intrauterine devices.”

Austin also directed the DoD to develop a program to support DoD health care providers who are subject to “adverse action” such as penalties or loss of license for performing abortions, Politico reported. 

The DoD announcement is the latest instance of federal entities taking action to promote abortion access after the overturning of Roe v. Wade returned the question of abortion policy to each state. In early September, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced that it would begin providing abortions in the case of threats to the life and health of the mother, or in cases of rape or incest. The agency, which has never offered abortions before, said it plans to do so nationwide “regardless of state restrictions.” 

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