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Senate Democrats ask military to protect abortion access for service members

In a letter, 36 Democrats and two independents expressed support for the Pentagon's policy of providing paid leave and travel expenses for service members getting abortions.

Three-quarters of the Senate’s Democrats sent a letter Monday urging Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to continue to protect access to abortion care for service members and their families and warning that restricting reproductive care harms national security. 

The Democrats, led by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, argue in the letter that restricting abortion care for service members and their dependents harms the health and readiness of the military and hurts both recruiting and retention. The letter was signed by 36 Democrats and by Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine, independents who caucus with the Democrats.

Since the Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade in June, 13 states now ban abortions and other states are considering more restrictions. Women are about 17% of the U.S. military. According to the Democrats’ letter, the Rand Corp. estimates that 40% of active-duty women serving in the U.S. are assigned to locations with limited or no access to abortion services.

Before Dobbs, abortion services at military treatment facilities were limited to specific circumstances, among them cases of rape or incest or when the life of the pregnant woman is in jeopardy. For abortion services under other circumstances, military members were required to pay at civilian facilities.

Last year, in response to Dobbs, the Defense Department vowed to continue to provide abortion services at military treatment facilities under its existing guidelines, including in states where abortions are now outlawed. 

The Pentagon then laid out new policies for service members seeking abortions at civilian facilities, including paying travel expenses for service members and their dependents to seek abortion care and allowing administrative absences without using earned leave to seek noncovered reproductive services. In addition, in most cases female service members now do not have to notify their command of pregnancies until 20 weeks.

The Pentagon has argued that restricting access to abortion care has readiness, recruiting and retention implications for the military, but Senate Republicans have questioned the claim, asking the Pentagon to provide data to back it up.

On March 1, 12 Republicans, led by the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Roger Wicker of Mississippi, wrote to Austin asking for evidence to support the readiness claims and criticizing the policy changes. “This can only be interpreted as a purely political action taken without consulting Congress,” Wicker wrote. 

The Republicans argued that the Pentagon policies are a “blatant attempt to circumvent numerous federal statutes” and that they “force taxpayers to subsidize abortions,” including elective abortions, because the government will now pay for travel and transportation.

In February, Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, placed a hold on President Joe Biden’s nominations for Defense Department posts to protest the Pentagon’s abortion policy. Last week he vowed to maintain the hold until the policy is changed.

Monday’s letter from Senate Democrats calls on Austin to ensure the February policies are implemented and to consider accessibility of abortion and reproductive care when basing decisions are made in the future.

“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 senators wrote. 

“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.” 

In a statement to NBC News, Shaheen said: “Without decisive action from Congress, we are going to see the continued erosion of women’s rights across the nation due to the reversal of Roe v. Wade, and that uniquely harms women in uniform. … Service members do not have a say over where they are stationed. With Republican-controlled legislatures doubling down on their promise to enact laws that restrict women’s access to abortion, as well as other reproductive care procedures, both women and men in uniform — who are stationed based on the needs of the nation and not their personal preference — will be among the most vulnerable to these attacks.”