Veterans Affairs leaders aren’t planning any changes in their abortion access rules in the wake of warnings from 15 Republican attorneys general that they plan to fight those policies in court.
Last week, the coalition of state officials sent a letter to VA Secretary Denis McDonough blasting the administration’s “lawless and hasty executive actions taken at the behest of its political base” concerning abortion.
“We will not allow you to use this rule to erect a regime of elective abortions that defy state laws,” the group wrote. “And we will enforce our duly enacted state laws and hold you accountable for violations of federal law. Those who perform abortions based on the [new] rule — and in defiance of state or federal laws — do so at their own risk.”
The letter was sent from the office of Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch but also includes signers from Texas and Florida, two states with the largest veteran populations in America. Officials from Arizona, Ohio, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah and West Virginia also signed on.
In September, 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, multiple states have banned or limited the procedure.
VA officials said the new rule means that 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.
The department has conducted several abortions since the decision, although officials did not provide specific numbers or locations.
In a statement in response to the attorneys general letter, VA Press Secretary Terrence Hayes said the department remains “committed to providing veterans the full range of reproductive health services to ensure their health and well-being.”
Those services include not only abortion procedures but also fertility services, contraceptives and menopause care, he said.
“VA provides access to abortion counseling and abortions when the life or health of the pregnant veteran would be endangered if the pregnancy were carried to term or when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest,” he said.
“As VA Secretary Denis McDonough has said, ‘pregnant veterans and VA beneficiaries deserve to have access to world-class reproductive care when they need it most..’”
VA officials have said the new rule will not allow “elective” abortions, but the language allows abortion procedures to be considered when a veteran’s health is endangered.
Multiple Republican lawmakers have threatened to impose financial sanctions against the department when they take control of the House majority next year. Democratic leaders meanwhile have vowed to fight any such attacks.
VA officials have said about 300,000 women veterans currently enrolled in department health care services are of child-bearing age.
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.