Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough on Sunday would not back calls to provide abortions at department medical centers even as he pledged to find ways to ensure women veterans have access to the services regardless of where they live.
The comments came just two days after 25 Senate lawmakers (all Democrats and independents) urged the department to begin offering abortions at VA medical centers to all veterans and eligible family members, in response to a growing number of states outlawing the procedure.
“Last month’s disastrous Supreme Court decision … makes it even more critical that veterans receive access to the reproductive care to which they are entitled,” the group wrote in a letter to the VA secretary. “VA must urgently begin rulemaking to allow veterans and eligible dependents to receive abortions and all abortion-related services.”
Since the Supreme Court in June overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, which legalized abortion nationwide, at least 23 states have started to place limits or already imposed restrictions on health care workers from providing abortions.
Kentucky, Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Texas have near total bans on the procedure.
That has prompted abortion rights supporters in Congress to push administration officials to find ways to make the procedure more easily available to women in those states, including possibly using federal facilities.
But whether VA has the authority to make such a move is in dispute.
During a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing on July 27, ranking member Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, reiterated his opposition to the idea and cited the Veterans Health Care Act of 1992, which prohibits abortions at VA medical locations.
But in their letter to McDonough, the senators supporting the idea said that under the Veterans Health Care Eligibility Reform Act of 1996, the department can furnish “needed” medical care to veterans.
“Importantly, the VA has used its authority to provide reproductive care such as pregnancy care and infertility services, even though such care was initially excluded from the health care packages allowed under the [1992 law],” they wrote. “We contend that the VA has the statutory authority and discretion to provide abortions and abortion-related services and resources.”
McDonough has said publicly that VA general counsel has asserted the department is not statutorily prohibited from providing abortion counseling or abortion services, but has chosen not to engage in those practices in the past. Republican lawmakers strongly dispute that claim.
But during an interview Sunday on CNN’s State of the Union, McDonough would not commit to any specific changes to address abortion access for veterans.
“We’re looking very closely at that to ensure that there’s no reduction of services to [women veterans] and no risk to their lives as a result of these decisions,” he said.
“Women veterans are the fastest growing group of veterans that we have in our care,” he added. “My preference is that they not face risks to their lives as a result of this decision from the court. We’re going to make sure that we’re in a position to take care of them.”
In fiscal 2020, about 550,000 women veterans accessed VA health care services, and another 400,000 women dependents and survivors accessed care through related programs.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.