The Pentagon has announced new support for service members who seek abortions, including covering travel expenses for those based in parts of the United States where the procedure is now banned.
Thursday’s order (PDF) includes privacy protections meant to shield members of the US military from repercussions related to abortion-related decisions and sets guidelines so that local commanders aren’t allowed to influence whether service members get access to care.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said the actions would be completed before the end of the year.
“I am committed to the Department taking all appropriate action, within its authority and consistent with applicable federal law, as soon as possible to ensure that our Service members and their families can access reproductive health care and our health care providers can operate effectively,” Austin said in the memorandum.
The SCOTUS ruling on reproductive health has real readiness, recruiting, & retention implications for the Force. We've heard concerns from many of our people about the uncertainty they now face in accessing reproductive health care, including abortion services. pic.twitter.com/Ed1Dte3ciD
— Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III (@SecDef) October 20, 2022
The order is the most recent step by the federal government to safeguard abortion rights after the Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v Wade ruling in June, ending the constitutional right to an abortion in the country.
That decision paved the way for a wave of new abortion restrictions and outright bans in more than a dozen US states.
The Democratic Party has made support for abortion rights a key part of its appeal to voters ahead of midterm elections on November 8, promising to safeguard and restore access to the procedure if Democrats win a sizable majority in Congress.
This week, President Joe Biden also said he would promote a bill in Congress to codify abortion rights at the federal level if Democrats secure a majority.
“Here is the promise I make to you and the American people,” Biden said on Tuesday. “The first bill that I will send to the Congress will be to codify Roe v Wade.”
The reversal of Roe v Wade expanded the discretion US states have to craft their own laws and restrictions on abortion. That has created a confusing collection of rules as Republican-led states rolled back abortion rights while Democratic-led ones sought to protect them.
Many US service members had expressed concern following the Supreme Court’s June decision, especially those in states that have restricted or banned the procedure.
Austin noted that concerns over retention were part of the reason for the new policy.
After the overturning of Roe, the Pentagon announced that it would continue to grant service members medical leave to travel for abortions.
The new memorandum builds on that policy by helping cover travel expenses, shielding such decisions from the authority of local commanders and requiring military bases to publicly display information on reproductive health services.
It also extends the time period in which a service member must report a pregnancy to commanders up to 20 weeks.
Under federal law, the Pentagon’s healthcare system cannot provide abortions except in cases of rape, incest or to protect the life of the mother.
That law remains intact, and federal funds would cover only travel expenses and not the cost of the abortion itself outside of those limited circumstances.