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New Pentagon abortion policy likely to trigger legislative war

Guidance to ensure abortion access comes as Congress nears action on annual defense policy bill

Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, the top Republican on the House Armed Services panel, called the policy a "desperate campaign tactic."
Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, the top Republican on the House Armed Services panel, called the policy a "desperate campaign tactic." (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A day-old Pentagon policy on female servicemembers’ access to reproductive health services is already triggering election-year sniping among lawmakers and figures to loom large in forthcoming legislation.

The new guidance is a reaction to the June Supreme Court ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which allowed states to restrict most abortions. More than a dozen states have done so. As a result, some women in the military need to travel hundreds of miles to get an abortion.

In a Thursday memo to U.S. military brass and civilian Defense Department leaders, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III ordered a number of actions to safeguard servicemembers’ access to reproductive health services.

One of these was requiring that the department cover travel and transportation expenses associated with accessing such services, including abortions, and permitting “administrative absences” in such cases that does not count against a servicemember’s allotment of leave.

The policy comes less than three weeks before midterm congressional elections in which abortion, in the wake of the Dobbs ruling, has become a contentious partisan issue.

Members of Congress have made plain in the hours since Austin’s memo that the Pentagon policy will continue to divide the parties when members return to the Capitol in the lame duck session and, next year, in the new Congress, when Republicans are expected to have more members than they do now.

‘DoD must be blocked’

Most significantly, Rep. Mike D. Rogers of Alabama, in a statement Friday, signaled a legislative response is forthcoming.

Rogers is the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee and he stands to become the chairman in the next Congress if Republicans gain the House majority.

Rogers and other Republicans will have to sign off on the fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act later this year, and the GOP hand may be strengthened in the next Congress when the fiscal 2024 NDAA is written. Appropriators may also weigh in on the abortion issue when they write their defense spending bills.

“Taxpayer dollars meant for deterring China and other adversaries should not be squandered on campaign politics,” Rogers said. “DoD must be blocked from wasting any portion of their budget on this horrendous policy.”

Rogers said he is “deeply disappointed that the Department of Defense has allowed President Biden to blatantly misuse the United States Military for political purposes.” Austin’s memo, he said, “released nearly two weeks before the election, is a desperate campaign tactic that undermines the core mission of our military.”

Likewise, Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., a member of the Armed Services Committee in that chamber, tweeted: “FIRST, @JoeBiden proclaimed abortion his TOP PRIORITY. NOW, he’s using the military to advance his radical pro-abortion agenda. Americans are struggling to make ends meet, and THIS is how he spends his time and our taxpayer dollars?! It’s disgusting.”

Democratic support

Democrats, notably including Jack Reed of Rhode Island, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, lauded the Pentagon’s new policy and also indicated that a legislative battle is on the horizon.

Reed, in a statement, promised “to do everything within my power to pass legislation in the U.S. Senate to protect our service members, their families, and to codify a woman’s right to choose.”

A federal statutory guarantee of a right to abortion is considered unlikely to clear Congress anytime soon, but provisions tailored for U.S. military servicemembers could be debated as part of the NDAA process.

Reed said the Dobbs decision made access to reproductive health care, including abortion, contingent on economic status and location.

“The practical effect of the Supreme Court’s decision is that troops have been forced to travel greater distances, take more time off work, and pay more out-of-pocket expenses to access reproductive health care,” Reed said.

Other Democrats on the Armed Services panels issued statements of support for Austin’s move.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., said, “We can’t thank servicemembers for their sacrifices by telling them what they can or cannot do with the same bodies they risk time and again for our country.”

And Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said the new guidance “will be life-changing and lifesaving, and it will improve military readiness, recruitment, and retention.”

Recruiting, readiness justification

In addition to covering travel expenses and providing leave for women who ask for it for reproductive services, Austin’s memo took a number of other steps designed to safeguard the privacy rights of servicemembers who seek to take advantage of the new benefits and enable Defense Department doctors to do their jobs.

The “practical effects” of the Dobbs decision and legislation that followed in many states, Austin said, “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 added, “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.”

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