Republican lawmakers on Thursday promised a looming battle over Veterans Affairs’ officials decision to provide abortions at department medical centers even in states where the procedure is outlawed, but agency leaders responded that they are confident they can win that fight.
“We feel this is needed care,” Dr. Shereef Elnahal, VA’s Under Secretary for Health, told members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing on the topic. “If these veterans are under our care, and we know we can save their lives, we have to do it.”
Earlier this month, VA officials announced plans to offer abortion access for the first time to veterans and eligible dependents in cases of rape, incest and pregnancies that endanger the life or health of an individual.
The department will also offer abortion counseling services to all patients, another first for the department.
The move came about 10 weeks after the Supreme Court overturned the 1973 Roe vs. Wade ruling which legalized abortion nationwide. Since then, at least 25 states have started to place limits or already imposed restrictions on health care workers from providing abortions.
VA officials said those limits forced the department to intervene. They have not yet released a detailed timeline of when abortions may start, but Elnahal said an implementation plan is under development.
“Should an abortion be needed, VA anticipates that medication abortion will be a common type of care provided and is working to ensure that providers have access to training where needed, as well as needed medications,” he said.
“VA will ensure that all necessary staffing and equipment are available at sites. Provider guidance and training, to the extent training is necessary, also are being finalized.”
But Republican lawmakers said they will work to stop that. They promised both legal challenges and, if they retake control of either chamber of Congress this fall, appropriations punishments for the department.
Committee ranking member Mike Bost, R-Ill., called VA’s decision “illegal” and said he is working with fellow lawmakers on those potential sanctions.
“Abortion is not health care, no matter what those on the other side of this issue may feel,” he said. “The right to life is a sacred, American value enshrined in the Declaration of Independence … and I am committed to defending it now for [veterans] and their unborn children.”
Opponents say that VA’s decision to provide abortions violates several existing laws, including the Veterans Health Care Act of 1992, which prohibits abortions at VA medical locations.
But Democratic supporters have argued that under the Veterans Health Care Eligibility Reform Act of 1996, the department can furnish “needed” medical care to veterans, including abortions. VA officials said they are confident in their legal standing on the issue.
As Republican lawmakers at Thursday’s hearing angrily blasted VA officials for the new abortion rule, Democratic representatives praised them.
“Women veterans’ freedom to make choices that are best for their own personal health, and medical providers’ freedom to exercise their clinical judgment, are under attack,” said Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif.
“This rule will save women’s lives and protect their health.”
Rand researcher Kayla Williams (the former director of the Center for Women Veterans at VA) said at the hearing that about 260,000 women veterans of reproductive age currently live in states with significant abortion restrictions. An estimated 70,000 VA patients may be affected by the rule changes.
Elnahal told lawmakers he expects about 1,000 abortions to be performed by VA annually. But he also noted the number could rise as the number of women veterans in America grows in coming years.
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.