U.S. military will pay for troops to travel for abortions

U.S. Marine Corps recruits stand in formation at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island in 2017.

U.S. Marine Corps recruits stand in formation at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island in 2017. U.S. Marine Corps / Lance Cpl. Colby Cooper

Post-Roe abortion restrictions already are hurting recruiting and retention, defense officials say.

The Pentagon will begin paying for troops and their family members to travel for abortions, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced in a memo outlining several policy changes and directives designed to ensure the military community retains access to reproductive healthcare following the Supreme Court’s repeal of Roe v. Wade.  

The changes include or call for new guidance and protections for service members, commanders, and healthcare providers that Pentagon officials said would follow federal law.  

The move is a response to the court’s ruling on Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, commonly called the Dobbs decision, Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said. The June ruling removed federal protections that had kept several states from banning abortion and other reproductive healthcare services. 

“The practical effect of the recent changes is that service members may be forced to drive greater distances, take more time off work, and pay more out-of-pocket expenses to access reproductive health care, all of which have readiness, recruiting, and retention implications for America's armed forces,” Ryder said, noting that troops and military families travel and move frequently, and “such moves should not limit their access to reproductive health care.” 

Though the details of the travel allowance and leave accommodations have not been finalized, defense officials said they anticipate that they also would apply to troops and families stationed overseas. 

Already, the Pentagon has qualitative and quantitative information showing concerns about access to reproductive care has hurt recruitment, retention, and readiness, a defense official told reporters, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Austin’s memo directs the Defense Department to help protect the privacy of pregnant troops and dependents, protect military healthcare providers, establish leave and travel allowances for women who must travel to obtain abortions or other care, and improve awareness of the resources available. The move comes less than three weeks before contentious mid-term elections in which abortion rights are on the ballot in five states.  

A RAND study released in September said 40 percent of active-duty female troops in the continental United States are stationed in states where abortion is illegal or severely restricted. The federal government is prohibited from using taxpayer money to pay for abortions directly, except in cases in which the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, or the life of the mother is endangered. Between 2016 and 2021, 91 such abortions were performed at military treatment facilities, a second defense official said. 

Austin’s memo directs the Defense Department to:

  • Establish an official policy to allow leave specifically for reproductive health care that isn’t covered by or performed at military facilities, including abortions and in-vitro fertilization;
  • Create travel and transportation allowances for troops and their dependents for official travel to access reproductive health care services that aren’t available near where they are stationed; 
  • Develop a program to pay military health care providers back for fees associated with becoming licensed in a different state; 
  • Create a program to protect military health care providers “who are subject to adverse action,” such as loss of license or reprimand, for performing their official duties appropriately;
  • Create additional privacy protections for “reproductive health care information,’ which includes extending the time troops have to notify commanders of a pregnancy to “no later than 20 weeks unless specific requirements to report sooner”; 
  • Direct military healthcare providers to not notify or disclose reproductive health information to commanders except in certain cases; and
  • Improve the education and information about resources and services available to troops and their families, including information about contraception. 

“These actions will ensure service members have the time to make private decisions about their reproductive health care, while maintaining the responsibility of commanders to meet operational requirements and protect the health and safety of those in their care consistent with readiness,” the first defense official said.

This article was published also on DefenseOne and GovExec, FederalSoup partner sites. 

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