Senate Democrats say abortion access for service members helps national security

Lloyd Austin
Retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, the Biden administrations choice to be secretary of defense, listens during an event at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del., Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) Susan Walsh/AP

Senate Democrats say abortion access for service members helps national security

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A group of roughly 75% of Senate Democrats have praised the Department of Defense’s new reproductive healthcare policies while urging it to do more.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, led a new letter on Monday to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. She was joined by 34 of her Democratic colleagues and two independents who caucus with the party. They argued that Austin’s efforts to ensure service members and spouses have access to abortion must continue due to what they described as significant national security implications in the wake of the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade last year.

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In mid-February, Austin directed several policy changes, which included allowing women in the service to have their travel expenses paid and receive up to three weeks of leave to obtain an out-of-state abortion. The updated guidance comes after about a dozen Republican-led states passed laws to roll back abortion access in the wake of the court’s ruling.

The group of Democrats said they were “encouraged” by the updated regulations, while their Republican colleagues quickly denounced it.

“We are encouraged by your new travel and transportation, and administrative leave policies in support of reproductive health care, including abortion, and we urge you to consider the availability of such care when considering the unique vulnerabilities service members face in deployments, military recruitment and retention efforts and U.S. military basing decisions,” the Senate Democrats said. “State laws restricting or prohibiting our service members from accessing reproductive care send a message that the United States does not trust those who serve in uniform — whom we trust to protect our country — to make their own decisions about their health care and families.”

Approximately 40% of female U.S. service members have limited access to abortion services where they live or are stationed since the Supreme Court’s ruling, according to a Rand study published in September 2022. Roughly 80,000 female service members serve in states that have implemented or will soon implement additional abortion restrictions.

“Women service members, who make up approximately 17% of active duty military, have no say in where they are stationed, even if their duty station is in a state that severely limits or restricts access to abortion or other critical reproductive health services,” the letter continued. “It is unacceptable that service members or their dependents should face limited or no access to abortion care simply because of where they are stationed as part of their service to the United States.”

The group cited the military’s recruitment woes that have plagued the services, which have largely occurred due to several reasons ranging from the effects of the pandemic, such as preventing recruiters from going to high schools for outreach, to a decreased percentage of Americans meeting the military’s qualifications. The Senate Democrats also urged the Pentagon to consider abortion access in future basing decisions.

“Recruiting and retention will only be made more challenging as states continue to ban or restrict access to abortion services, sending a message that certain service members’ autonomy and ability to get the health care they need does not matter, and putting into place additional barriers and undue burdens for service members and their families,” they wrote. “The Department of Defense should also consider the availability and accessibility of health care, including abortion and reproductive care, when making basing decisions, and swiftly develop a framework for major basing and personnel decisions that accounts for state and local laws restricting access to reproductive health care.”

The issue of how the Pentagon should respond to the ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization has been debated for months, with both parties sticking to their side on abortion.

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Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) has been stymieing nominations and promotions at the department in protest of its policy for footing the bill for abortion travel. So far, he has stopped more than 150 DOD nominations and has shown no signs of backing down.

In October, roughly 40 House Republicans wrote to Austin calling on him to rescind the department’s policy of paying for service members’ travel to obtain an abortion, calling it “an unprecedented politicization of our Armed Forces” and describing that to be “a hallmark of the Biden Administration from the start.”

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