Amid Abortion Fight, House Democrats Want to Hear from Veterans on Reproductive Health Care

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Reps. Julia Brownley (D-California), middle, and Sylvia Garcia (D-Texas) learn about how the staff at VA Houston plans to meet the reproductive health-care needs of the 12,000-plus female veterans who rely on the facility for care.
Reps. Julia Brownley (D-California), middle, and Sylvia Garcia (D-Texas) learn about how the staff at VA Houston plans to meet the reproductive health-care needs of the 12,000-plus female veterans who rely on the facility for care. (Twitter photo)

House Democrats are gathering feedback from veterans on reproductive health care at the Department of Veterans Affairs in the latest congressional salvo on abortion rights.

In a press release Thursday afternoon, Democrats on the House Veterans Affairs Committee announced a new "effort" on reproductive health care access for veterans.

The initiative so far has included multiple visits to VA facilities and veterans organizations and listening sessions by committee members and staffers in Texas and Oklahoma, according to the news release. Both states have mostly banned abortion in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling that overturned nationwide abortion rights.

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It isn't clear what the committee plans to do with the information it is gathering, including whether lawmakers will issue a report or introduce new legislation, with committee spokesperson Miguel Salazar saying only that "we have plans, but are not at the phase [to] begin to distribute widely."

"At this point we're focused on continuing to gather information and hear from veterans across the country," Salazar said in an email.

Posts on the committee's Twitter account show health subcommittee Chairwoman Julia Brownley, D-Calif., and other committee members holding meetings in Dallas, Houston, Austin and Oklahoma City earlier this month.

"Without clear, state-specific guidance from VA, providers at VA medical facilities are confronted with tremendous uncertainty, and they are frustrated by restricted authority and constraints that limit their ability to provide the best care for veterans," Brownley said in a statement included in the news release. "As the assault on reproductive rights escalates and the right to bodily autonomy continues to be threatened, veterans are rightfully anxious and emotionally distressed about the future of their reproductive care."

The committee also posted a survey on its website to gather information from veterans on their experiences with reproductive health care at the VA.

The survey had a "soft" launch in late July and has already received some responses, a committee spokesperson told Military.com, without providing a number.

It is unclear what other actions may be part of the effort, including where else the committee may do site visits and whether there will be public hearings, though Salazar vowed that "we plan to continue to be active on this issue throughout the fall."

Brownley, who also chairs the Women Veterans Task Force, introduced a bill last year to require the VA to provide abortion counseling to veterans with unwanted pregnancies.

The committee's newest effort comes amid a broader Democratic push on abortion access for service members and veterans after the Supreme Court's June ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, which overturned the 50-year precedent of Roe v. Wade that guaranteed abortion rights nationwide.

In the wake of the ruling, nearly two dozen states have moved to ban or severely restrict abortion access, though some have been temporarily blocked by courts from enforcing their bans.

The Democratic drive also comes ahead of November's midterm elections, in which Democrats are hoping to harness opposition to the Supreme Court ruling to defy expectations they will lose control of at least the House. Democrats have spent about $31.9 million on ads talking about abortion since the ruling, according to The New York Times.

The VA generally does not provide abortions or abortion counseling, with some exceptions when the mother's life is at risk from the pregnancy. That is more restrictive than the Defense Department, which allows for abortions in cases of rape and incest in addition to when the mother's life is in danger.

Last month, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said the department is "closely watching" states' actions to determine whether it will take steps to offer abortions to veteran patients. He held that the department is not barred by law from covering abortions, but that because the procedure is not included in the medical benefits package, the VA would need to go through the lengthy formal federal rule-making process to offer them.

Republicans have taken issue with the VA's interpretation of the law, saying the Veterans Health Care Act of 1992 prohibits the VA from providing abortions. That law directed the VA to provide reproductive health care except for "infertility services, abortions or pregnancy care" unless that care is needed because of service-connected condition.

After McDonough's comments, 25 Senate Democrats wrote him a letter pressing him to "urgently begin rulemaking to allow veterans and eligible dependents to receive abortions and all abortion-related services."

"We contend that the VA has the statutory authority and discretion to provide abortions and abortion-related services and resources," they wrote. "Importantly, the VA has used its authority under the Veterans Health Care Eligibility Reform Act of 1996 to provide reproductive care such as pregnancy care and infertility services, even though such care was initially excluded from the health care packages allowed under the Veterans Health Care Act of 1992."

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

Related: VA Considers Providing Abortions as It Monitors States' Responses to Supreme Court Ruling

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