‘Do the right thing’: Senators demand secretary of defense rescind abortion travel policy

U.S. military soldier Bumble Dee / Shutterstock

A group of nearly 30 U.S. senators this week called on the Biden administration to rescind the Department of Defense’s controversial policy that authorizes the payment of travel expenses for service members and their families seeking abortions. 

In October of last year, several months after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision that repealed Roe v. Wade and returned the power of abortion regulation to state legislatures, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin directed the department to “establish travel and transportation allowances” so that service members and their dependents can access abortion in states that offer it. 

“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,” Austin’s memo said. 

That policy has generated controversy since its issuance. Most prominently, Alabama Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville has for months been holding up unanimous-consent military promotions on the Senate floor in protest of the policy. Tuberville has argued that the Pentagon chose to institute the policy outside of congressional approval and that it should go through normal legislative channels. 

This week, a group of 27 senators published a letter to Austin writing that, with the issuance of the policy, Austin has “broken your promise to the American people not to politicize the military, and your actions have harmed and threaten to further harm institutional norms within our democracy.”

Congress “never authorized the department to expend funds to facilitate abortions,” the letter stated, “and, until the policy was issued, the military never facilitated abortions except in cases of rape, incest, or where the life of the mother would be endangered if the unborn child were carried to term.”

“Now taxpayers — many of whom have deeply-held religious and moral objections to abortions — are on the hook to facilitate the very abortions they fundamentally oppose,” the senators wrote.

The letter criticized Austin for his allegation that the repeal of Roe v. Wade created “readiness, recruiting, and retention implications for the force.”

“By your own officials’ admissions, however, the department has no data to support that claim, and few service members or dependents have utilized the policy,” they wrote.

The undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, they wrote, has confirmed that the Department of Defense “does not have any data on women being deterred from joining the military for fear of being stationed at an installation or base in a state or nation that has restrictive abortion laws.”

“A recent letter from the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee revealed that only 12 women have taken advantage of the policy since its inception,” which, they argued, “undercuts [Austin’s] argument that Dobbs has significant recruiting and retention implications.”

“Your decision to issue the policy politicized the military and placed the wants of a few over the needs of the entire nation,” the senators wrote. “Do the right thing. Rescind the policy now.”

The letter was signed entirely by Republicans from the chamber’s minority; none of the Senate’s Democratic majority signed onto it.

Senate Democrats on Tuesday advanced a resolution from the chamber’s Rules Committee to bypass Tuberville’s ongoing blockade of batch military promotions. That resolution will head to the Senate floor for a full vote.

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