The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and remove federal protection of abortion access will affect troops and their families in myriad ways, many of which the Defense Department is still trying to work out.
One thing the Pentagon does intend to do in response, according to a memo released Tuesday, is work with the Justice Department to make sure DoD health care staff aren’t prosecuted for helping troops obtain abortions.
“It is the Department of Justice’s longstanding position that states generally may not impose criminal or civil liability on federal employees who perform their duties in a manner authorized by federal law,” wrote Gil Cisneros, the defense under secretary for personnel and readiness, adding that he would work with DoJ to “ensure access to counsel for such civilian employees and service members if needed and as appropriate.”
This will particularly be an issue for any DoD health care employees who, for example, refer troops to out-of-state facilities to secure abortions.
Service members and their dependents are only able to use their health insurance to cover abortions in cases of rape, incest or when the pregnancy threatens the life of the mother. However, many military treatment facilities don’t employ staff or keep equipment to perform the procedures. Instead, they refer patients to private facilities off base.
While many states with recently passed abortion restrictions do make exceptions for rape, incest and health of the mother, there are some that don’t; those include South Dakota, home to Ellsworth Air Force Base, and Alabama, home to Fort Rucker, which have banned abortions in the case of rape and incest.
Service members, or their dependents, stationed there would then have to travel out of state to secure an abortion.
Beyond the logistical challenge, there are concerns that state legislatures will expand their bans to go after anyone who helps someone get an abortion. Oklahoma and Texas already allow civil law suits in those cases, and Missouri has a bill that would allow lawsuits against anyone who travels out of state to obtain an abortion.
Out-of-state travel is a particular challenge for service members. Not only do they have to get their commands to approve it, they have to work through a complicated web of different types of leave and reimbursable travel.
Abortions covered by DoD qualify for nonchargeable leave and official travel, according to the Cisneros memo, while troops can use their vacation time and their own funds to cover abortions in other circumstances.
Their ability to do that, however, depends entirely on whether a commander approves it. A commander with an anti-abortion stance, or who is otherwise unmoved by the urgency of needing to end a pregnancy, could deny or postpone that leave.
“We will issue additional guidance as appropriate,” according to the memo, which could include policy that would compel commanders to grant these travel requests.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.