Military Could Expand Abortion Services Under New Bill Floated by Democrats

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Rally for abortion rights in front of the Supreme Court.
Signs lay in front of fencing during a rally for abortion rights in front of the Supreme Court of the United States in Washington, Saturday, May 14, 2022, during protests across the country. (AP Photo/Amanda Andrade-Rhoades)

The Defense Department would be able to fund or itself provide abortions for service members under a new bill introduced Friday by dozens of House Democrats as the country braces for a U.S. Supreme Court decision that could dramatically curb access.

Female troops must now go off base for abortions in most cases, and similar efforts to expand access have fallen short in the past. But the latest legislation comes as many states pass new restrictive laws with the expectation that the high court will soon overturn Roe v. Wade, the legal precedent that has protected abortion rights across the country for nearly 50 years.

"The fallout for our service members and their families will be catastrophic, as is the threat to our military readiness, morale and unit cohesion," Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., chair of the House Armed Services Committee's military personnel subcommittee, said in a statement Friday. "Our brave service members deserve the same access to basic health care as the people they are fighting to protect."

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Speier sponsored the bill alongside 81 House co-sponsors, all of them Democrats. In the other chamber of Congress, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.; Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.; and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who are all members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, also plan to introduce a version of the bill, according to a news release from Speier's office.

Right now, federal law prohibits Tricare, the military's health insurance, from covering abortions for service members and covered spouses unless the mother's life is in danger or the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest. Military treatment facilities are also banned from providing abortions with the same limited exceptions.

The bill introduced Friday would repeal those prohibitions.

Democrats have been pushing the Pentagon to ensure troops retain access to abortion services since last month, when the draft of an upcoming Supreme Court opinion was leaked to the public. It revealed the court is poised to overturn the 1973 Supreme Court ruling on Roe.

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.

Many of the biggest military bases in the country are in those states, such as Fort Hood in Texas.

Because of the legal restrictions on the military providing abortions, servicewomen must go off base to get one. In light of that, 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.

In the past, some efforts to expand abortion access and other reproductive care for service members have made it into early drafts of Congress' annual defense policy bill, only to be taken out in the final version that became law because of strong Republican opposition.

For example, in 2010, a Senate version of the defense bill would have removed the restriction on performing abortions in Defense Department facilities, but that provision was stripped from the bill before it became law.

Even efforts to expand contraception access for troops have had trouble becoming law amid fierce Republican opposition, such as a Speier-led amendment to eliminate Tricare copays for birth control and ensure servicewomen can access emergency contraception. That has made it into the House version of the bill several times, only to be stripped during House-Senate negotiations.

The bill introduced Friday comes after eight Senate Democrats wrote a letter pushing the Pentagon to at least make it easier for service members to take leave if they need to travel out of state for reproductive health care.

Military.com reported last month that the Army is drafting a policy that would specify that soldiers can request to move if they feel state or local laws discriminate against them based on gender, sex, religion, race or pregnancy. Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston, the service's top enlisted leader, also told House lawmakers last month that the force is considering some response if Roe is overturned, though it's unclear whether that is separate from the draft compassionate reassignment policy.

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

Related: Soldiers Facing Discrimination from State Laws Could Request Transfers Under Draft Army Policy

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