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Pentagon under pressure to protect abortion access

Lawmakers and advocates are pressing the Department of Defense to protect access to abortion for servicewomen as the Supreme Court appears poised to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision.

The Army and the Air Force have made policy changes aimed at making leave for pregnancy termination easier.

But advocates say the Pentagon itself should issue rules that would allow service women to take leave to end pregnancies through abortion in order to eliminate disparities between the services on abortion access.

“This is not an Air Force issue, an Army issue, a Marine Corps issue, this is a national security Department of Defense personnel readiness issue,” said Rachel VanLandingham, an associate professor at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles.

“So therefore, this policy should come from the Department of Defense itself. There’s no room for disparities amongst the services,” she added.

The Hyde Amendment forbids federal dollars from being used for abortions unless a pregnancy endangers the life of a mother, and Tricare, the military’s healthcare program, only covers abortion in those cases or when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.

Research from Ibis Reproductive Heath suggests that the rate of unintended pregnancy is higher in the military that in the general population.

Ibis president Kelly Blanchard noted, however, that it’s difficult to tell how many women are seeking abortions because of unintended pregnancies.

“The military itself is not routinely across branches, collecting enough information to know that number,” Blanchard said, adding that the stigma around sexual activity in the military could play a role in the lack of information.

“I think we just have to be conscious of the challenge of people reporting in a military environment that that’s what their experience has been,” she said.

Service women seeking abortions also have the option to do so at facilities off base.

Allison Gill, a Navy veteran and host of the podcasts “Mueller She Wrote” and “The Daily Beans,” wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post up about seeking an abortion off base after she was raped.

Gill, who at the time was at the Naval Nuclear Power Training Command, said that when she reported the incident, she was threatened to be kicked out of the military.

“Had Roe been overturned, that probably wouldn’t be the case,” Gill told The Hill. “The worst part of my experience would be being forced to give birth, first of all. And then being forced to give birth to my rapist’s baby.”

While Gill was able to get an abortion at a nearby Planned Parenthood clinic, she said that not every servicemember can easily access the care they need. Many will have to request leave through their chain of command, which can force a servicemember to explain why they’re leaving.

Sean Timmons, a managing partner at the law firm Tully Rinckey PLLC, says that women could face a more hostile work environment after going through the approval process.

“Even if they get approved, when they return, it’s probably going to get leaked while they were gone,” he said, noting a “good number of people” will likely treat that servicemember differently.

“Half of the ranks are probably going to be voters who are very hostile to abortion,” he added. “So that’s going to make a very difficult environment to work.”

The Supreme Court this summer is widely expected to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision. A leaked draft opinion published by Political this month showed five conservatives on the court are ready to do so.

At least 26 states are likely to or will claw back abortion rights if Roe gets overturned, according to the pro-abortion rights Guttmacher Institute.

Blanchard noted that as the number of clinics where one can access abortion services gets reduced, it puts a greater strain on clinics in other states with more accessible care.

“You have to travel further, there’s additional expense for the travel, you still have to pay for the procedure, you have to find someone to take care of your kids, if you have kids, you have to deal with the logistics of getting time off,” she continued.

In mid-April, the Army released a policy stating in part that “given the time-sensitive nature of the procedure, pregnancy termination will not require unit commander pre-approval.” At the same time, the Army said soldiers would have to keep their commanders notified of expected absences. The Air Force adopted a similar policy in June 2021.

Sgt. Major of the Army Michael Grinston told a House appropriations subcommittee on May 12 that the Army was drafting policies to take care of service members “in an appropriate way” in response to the potential overturning of Roe v. Wade. Ultimately, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth would have to sign off on these directives.

The Pentagon has been largely mum on how rolling back abortion rights would affect military readiness.

The agency’s top spokesperson, John Kirby, told reporters in early May that “the health and well-being of our men and women are paramount concerns of Department leadership.”

In a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, a group of Democrats on the Senate Armed Services committee urged the Pentagon chief to implement policies to allow servicemembers to obtain special permissions to travel out of state for reproductive healthcare.

VanLandingham said that the Pentagon has room to indicate that the military will support women if they need to travel to seek abortion care.

“I’m hoping that the military can do this in a mature, sensitive way. And why? Because they need to retain their women,” she said. “Women are an integral part of the force “And if this is all going to jeopardize their morale and readiness within the military then that’s a national security problem.”

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