The Pentagon will cover some travel and transportation costs for service members who must cross state lines for legal abortions, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Thursday in a memo that lays out the broad strokes of military policy on the hot-button issue in a post-Roe world.
Saying limits on access to reproductive health care “will interfere with our ability to recruit, retain and maintain the readiness” of the U.S. military, the defense secretary’s long-awaited memo set out to answer lingering questions about how the Pentagon will approach abortions after the Supreme Court’s June decision reversing the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling, which established a national right to abortion.
The guidelines were announced less than a month before the midterm elections and could be seen as a Biden administration effort to lock in abortion protections for military personnel ahead of a potential Republican takeover of Congress. Pentagon officials denied that politics played any role in the timing of the memo.
“There is no timeline. We can’t work fast enough when it comes to taking care of our people,” Air Force Brig Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters.
The three-page document lays out a multipronged approach covering women in the armed services seeking abortions and the health care professionals providing them. In the memo, Mr. Austin said the Pentagon will establish privacy rules for pregnant women, including an extension to 20 weeks of the time a service member has before notifying a commander of her pregnancy.
The directive also puts into place new protections for Defense Department health care providers who perform abortions for service members in limited circumstances — such as pregnancies resulting from rape or those in which the mother’s life is threatened — in states where most abortions are outlawed.
Many major military installations are in the South and West — including Texas, Georgia and South Carolina — where state legislatures have moved quickly to pass or reinstate sharp curbs on abortion and abortion providers.
A September study by the Rand Corp. think tank said the Pentagon faced “wide-ranging” challenges in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling. It estimated that 40% of active-duty servicewomen and 43% of Defense Department civilian women will be stationed in places with little or no access to local abortion services.
The study said the abortion restrictions could have an impact on combat readiness, recruitment levels and retention rates for women. Based on military health records and surveys, the think tank estimates that 5,000 to 7,000 Defense Department military and civilian employees seek abortion services annually.
Perhaps the most notable new policies involve direct support, in the form of money and time off, for women who must leave their bases and travel across state lines to get abortions. Under the directive, Mr. Austin ordered Defense Department officials to create uniform policies to allow for “appropriate administrative absence” for those women — meaning the absences won’t count against personal leave.
The Defense Department also should cover some of the travel costs associated with the trips, the secretary said.
“Our service members and their families are often required to travel or move to meet our staffing, operational and training requirements.
“Such moves should not limit their access to reproductive health care,” Mr. Austin wrote in the memo. “The practical effects of recent changes are that significant numbers of service members and their families may be forced to travel greater distances, take more time off from work, and pay more out-of-pocket expenses to receive reproductive health care,” he wrote. “In my judgment, such effects qualify as unusual, extraordinary, hardship or emergency circumstances for service members and their dependents and will interfere with our ability to recruit, retain and maintain the readiness of a highly qualified force.”
To address those issues, Mr. Austin directed that the Pentagon: “Establish travel and transportation allowances for service members and their dependents, as appropriate and consistent with applicable federal law and operational requirements, and as necessary amend any applicable travel regulations, to facilitate official travel to access non-covered reproductive health care that is unavailable within the local area of a service member’s permanent duty station.”
The details of the policy are still being hammered out, defense officials told reporters on a conference call Thursday. It’s not clear how much the program could cost or whether it has any hard monetary caps on the expenses.
Mr. Austin’s memo stresses that women’s privacy and personal choices about reproductive health are of utmost importance.
Questions remain about how exactly a pregnant woman could obtain excused absences and financial reimbursement for travel without multiple superior officers or military administrative personnel knowing about it. Defense officials said the details of the policy will seek a balance between ensuring “commanders get the information they need to make the right decision” while protecting an individual service member’s privacy.
The memo was the latest in a series of steps the Pentagon has taken since June to protect abortion access for military service members.
Shortly after the Supreme Court’s decision, the Pentagon announced in a memo that military doctors will continue to perform abortions in cases in which the mother’s life is in danger or if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. Military doctors performed 91 such abortions from 2016 to 2021, officials said.
Military leaders also may consider a service member’s personal views on abortion when deciding where to station them. Last month, Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville told the news outlet Defense One that the Army will consider requests from soldiers who want to serve in states that allow abortions, though he stressed there is no guarantee those requests will be granted.
“We do have options where a soldier can say, ‘Hey, I want to serve in Alaska,’ and if we can meet those preferences, we will actually do that,” Gen. McConville said. “It’s a contract … and if we can make it work, we’ll try to make it work for them.”
• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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