WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon is introducing measures to protect military service members' rights and access to abortions no matter what state they are stationed in, according to a memo from Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.
The measures aim to secure the privacy of military service members' medical information, provide travel and transportation allowances to service members or their family members if they have to travel to another state to receive care and protect military medical providers who perform covered abortions if they are charged with civil or criminal complaints, the memo said.
While many of the policies are still being drafted, "implementing guidance should be completed by the end of the year," a defense official said.
While the Pentagon announcement comes three weeks ahead of the national midterm elections, defense officials said the announcement was not connected to them, CNN reported. Democratic candidates across the country have emphasized abortion rights in their campaigns following the US Supreme Court's ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, which removed the federal right to an abortion.
More than a dozen states have seen abortions bans come into effect since the Dobbs ruling.
"The Secretary and the Department has taken a thoughtful and deliberate approach in developing the actions that we mentioned," a defense official said. "In his statement immediately following Dobbs, the Secretary stated that the Department is examining this decision closely and evaluating our policies to ensure we continue to provide seamless access to reproductive health care as permitted by federal law."
Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Gil Cisneros sent a memo at the end of June after the Dobbs decision was handed down from the Supreme Court stating the "implications of the Supreme Court's decision are complicated and must be evaluated against various state laws" and said the Department would "issue additional guidance as appropriate." Defense officials said this announcement was a follow-up to that memo.
Protecting military medical providers
Federal funding can be used for abortions being performed in the case of rape, incest or if there is risk to the life of the mother, also referred to as covered abortions. Because of this, military medical facilities which are federally funded can perform covered abortions even in states with restrictive abortion laws.
There has been concern among military medical providers that they may face criminal or civil complaints if they continue to perform covered abortions in states that restrict abortions, defense officials said. Because of this, the Pentagon is creating policies to protect military medical health care providers if civil or criminal complaints are filed against them.
"The reason why we're doing it is to reassure our providers," a defense official said. "The bottom line is, we think, if it's done under federal jurisdiction, it will not be a problem. But quite frankly with the press, and all of the things that are out there, there is an underlying sort of concern about the potential."
If a criminal complaint is filed against a military medical provider, it will be deferred to the Department of Justice and the Department of Defense would "work with them to coordinate on the response," an official said.
The Department is also developing policies to provide "travel and transportation allowances" for service members or their family members that have to travel to another state to get an abortion, a defense official said. These actions are "fully consistent with federal law," the official added. The Pentagon will not cover the cost of non-covered abortion services, the official said.
Because military service members have to move frequently for their military postings, Austin stressed he does not believe the requirement of military service should prevent members from having access to reproductive health care.
"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," Austin said in the memo. "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."
Defense officials stressed that there is evidence, both "quantitatively and qualitatively" suggesting the Dobbs decision and restrictive abortion policies in some states where military service members may be stationed will impact military retention and recruitment.
"We do have information both quantitatively and qualitatively indicating that there is concern with respect to considerations from military service, considerations for continuing service once in, consideration for family choices, concerns about being stationed in a location where they may not have access to this information or access to these services," one of the officials said.
The Department is also developing a "uniform" policy that "allows for appropriate administrative absence consistent with applicable federal law for non-covered" abortions, the memo states.
"We are trying to provide a range of options from taking personal leave all the way through administrative absence and then travel support so that they can decide how best to approach a decision for their own needs and interests," a defense official said.
Austin stressed these policies are being developed to ensure the "health and well-being" of service members.
"There is no higher priority than taking care of our people and ensuring their health and well-being. The Department of Defense will continue to closely evaluate our policies to ensure that we continue to provide seamless access to reproductive health care as appropriate and consistent with federal law," Austin said in the memo.
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