Democratic senators vowed to fight to protect the Department of Veterans Affairs from looming attacks over its recent decision to provide abortions to veterans in limited circumstances, calling the move a critical step to protecting women’s health and lives.
“Women, not the government, should make their own decisions about their own bodies,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., at a Capitol Hill press conference on Wednesday. “Abortion is healthcare, and that makes it a basic human right. VA’s action is a powerfully important move in the right direction.”
The event came just five days after VA officials announced that department physicians would offer abortion access to veterans and eligible dependents in cases of rape, incest and pregnancies that endanger the life or health of an individual.
That move came in response to the June Supreme Court ruling overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide. Since then, more than two dozen states have banned or limited the procedure.
VA’s announcement means staff can help veterans get an abortion at an outside health care facility or perform abortions on federal property, even in states where the procedure has been outlawed.
Officials said the new policy will go into effect later this month. In response, conservative leaders have vowed to block the move.
In a statement last week, House Veterans’ Affairs Committee ranking member Mike Bost, R-Ill., said he believes existing law prohibits VA from assisting with abortions or conducting the procedures.
“This proposal is contrary to longstanding, settled law and a complete administrative overreach,” he said. “I oppose it and am already working to put a stop to it.”
On Tuesday, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., called the VA decision “grotesque and illegal” and said he would pursue legislation to stop the moves.
“The VA should focus on taking care of the brave men and women who served our country,” he said in a statement. “Instead, President [Joe] Biden is trying to turn local VA facilities into abortion factories.”
The Alabama Political Reporter on Wednesday reported that Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall promised to prosecute any provider who violated his state’s ban on abortions, even if the procedures were conducted on federal property.
“I have no intention of abdicating my duty to enforce the Unborn Life Protection Act against any practitioner who unlawfully conducts abortions in the state of Alabama,” he told the news organization. “The power of states to protect unborn life is settled.”
VA leaders — and advocates at Wednesday’s press conference — disagree. They say federal law allows abortions to be performed when a veteran’s life or health is in danger. Supporters called the moves to further limit abortion options an attack on women’s rights.
“It’s a wild time to be a woman combat veteran in America,” said Allison Jaslow, an Iraq War veteran who helped found Operation Liberty, which advocates for abortion rights for troops and veterans.
“Our country trusted me to make life and death decisions on the battlefield. Our country trusted me with my troops’ lives in combat. But my country no longer trusts me with decisions regarding my own body and my own health care.”
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill. and another Iraq War veteran, said she and other lawmakers will be working closely with VA leaders to make sure the new abortion services are implemented correctly and quickly.
“I’m proud that the VA made this decision,” she said. “I’m proud that our female veterans are going to be able to get something that’s very basic and fundamental, which is the ability to access a medical procedure that could save your life.”
In addition to the abortion procedures, VA officials said the pending rule changes would allow physicians to offer counseling on abortion questions to patients for the first time.
Leaders have not said when any procedures will begin being offered, but have posted additional information about eligibility and the full range of available services at the department’s website.
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.