The Army is weighing new policies in response to the Supreme Court's expected decision to reverse Roe v. Wade and eliminate protections on abortion rights across the country, the service's senior enlisted leader told Congress on Thursday.
Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston's testimony to the House came the same day that eight Senate Democrats separately pressed the Pentagon to ensure female troops will continue to be able to access abortion services if the high court acts on Roe.
News outlet Politico on May 2 published a draft ruling that the Supreme Court's five-judge conservative majority had been working on earlier this year, setting the stage for an expected decision later this summer to overturn the precedent-setting case from 1973 that has kept abortion rights the law of the land for decades.
"The answer is yes, we are drafting policies to ensure we take care of our soldiers in an appropriate way," Grinston told a House Appropriations Committee subpanel. "There are drafts if it were to be overturned, but that would be a decision for the secretary of the Army to decide the policy."
Grinston did not provide any more details about what the draft policy could entail, but pledged to keep lawmakers apprised of the drafting process.
"We do not want to disadvantage anyone in our force -- men, women -- or alienate anyone that is eligible to serve in the military," Grinston added when asked how overturning Roe could affect recruitment of women. "We'll continue to recruit as best as we can with the policies that we have."
Separate from the hearing, eight Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., on Thursday penned a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin urging him to ensure female troops "have the ability to continue accessing safe reproductive health care no matter where in the nation their military service sends them." The letter comes a day after Senate Democrats failed to advance a bill to codify Roe after all Republicans and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., voted against it.
Up to 26 states could ban abortion after Roe is overturned, including 13 that have so-called trigger laws to immediately end abortion after a Supreme Court ruling, according to the pro-abortion rights Guttmacher Institute.
Military doctors are already barred from performing abortions under most circumstances because of a law that bans federal funding from being used, with exceptions for when the mother's life is at risk. That means servicewomen must go off base to get abortions.
Experts and advocates have been warning that overturning Roe could be particularly hard on female troops, who cannot choose where they are stationed, because those based in states that ban abortion will have to ask for leave from their commanders to travel out of state.
"Women in the military already have a higher rate of unintended pregnancies than civilian women," Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., said at Thursday's hearing. "For those female soldiers in states with restrictive abortion laws, their options for safe abortions may be completely erased if Roe v. Wade is overturned."
Despite Grinston's comments Thursday, officials at the Defense Department level have sidestepped questions about post-Roe policies, saying the ruling isn't final yet.
"The health and well-being of our men and women are paramount concerns of department leadership, and we certainly want to make sure that whoever they are and wherever they are that they know that we're serious about that pledge," Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby told reporters the day after the draft opinion leaked, while adding he's "just not going to entertain" questions specifically about a ruling that's not official yet.
But in their letter Thursday, the eight Senate Democrats argued that "we cannot wait to act" until after the court's final decision.
The senators argued that, "at a minimum," the Defense Department should make it easier for service members to take leave if they need to travel out of state for reproductive health care.
They said a decision by the court to reverse Roe would strip hundreds of thousands of troops, dependents and DoD civilians of access to reproductive health care and create a "scenario where service members' reproductive and healthcare rights would become dependent on their duty station."
"A soldier at Fort Drum would retain their personal autonomy while a soldier at Fort Hood would not," they wrote. "This outcome would violate the trust servicemembers place in the Armed Forces when they swear an oath to defend the Constitution."
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at Rebecca.Kheel@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.