It’s been six weeks since the Supreme Court decided to eliminate federally guaranteed access to abortion. That change has created an extra layer of question and anxieties for the military community, which was already navigating rules about what their health insurance covers and whether they could secure leave to end a pregnancy safely.
To address those concerns, the Pentagon on Friday posted a question-and-answer document, which it began working on in late June, to help troops and their families navigate any new state-enacted legal restrictions.
Most importantly, the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization does not change anything that military treatment centers are able to do, as the Defense Department is governed by a federal law that prohibits federal funding from being used to perform abortions.
If a pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, or if carrying the pregnancy puts the mother’s life at risk, a military doctor will either perform the procedure or the patient will be referred to a private provider and the cost will be covered by Tricare.
That remains the case, according to the document, even if one of these covered abortions is now, or becomes, illegal in the state in which the patient is stationed.
For example, Ohio’s abortion law makes no exception for rape or incest, but an airman stationed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base can still end a pregnancy under these circumstances at an on-base clinic.
If that clinic does not have a doctor who performs abortions, the airman can take medical leave and have all travel expenses covered to obtain that abortion elsewhere ― in neighboring Pennsylvania, for example.
In contrast to states like Mississippi and Oklahoma, where rape survivors can only get abortions if they report their assaults to police, DoD regulations do not require notifying law enforcement.
“DoD providers may continue to provide covered abortion services as part of their Federal duties if medically appropriate, even if those services are prohibited by state law or licensing requirements,” according to the Q&A.
DoD does not maintain a central list of installations that have abortion providers, according to the document, but patients are encouraged to speak to their primary care physicians if they need to obtain one.
For cases that aren’t covered by Tricare, service members will have to take personal leave and cover their own travel expenses if it’s necessary to go out of state, because DoD policy does not allow for reimbursement of the expenses associated with non-covered abortions ― though federal law does not prohibit them from granting nonchargeable medical leave or covering those travel expenses.
According to the document, service members can take personal leave, or up to four days of special liberty to obtain an abortion, followed by a number of days of convalescent leave determined by their military doctor.
Similarly, federal law is specific enough that it only prevents funding the abortion procedure itself, so any complications or other after-care required can be taken care of on base, covered by Tricare.
Technically, service women don’t have to tell their commander why they’re requesting leave, but DoD concedes that it may be necessary to disclose some details in order to impress upon the commander that the leave cannot be postponed, “to allow the unit commander to make an informed decision on whether to grant the leave or special liberty.”
The services have also gotten questions about contraceptive access, as there are concerns that states may move to restrict those next. As with covered abortions, DoD will continue to provide what is allowed by federal law, regardless of conflicting local or state laws.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.