VA to Provide Abortions, Counseling for Cases of Rape, Incest and Medical Complications from Pregnancy

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A Department of Veterans Affairs medical facility.
A Department of Veterans Affairs medical facility. (Ross D. Franklin/AP File Photo)

The Department of Veterans Affairs plans to offer abortion services to veterans and dependents covered by VA health care in cases of rape, incest and danger to the life or health of the mother, officials announced Friday.

In a proposed rule sent to the Federal Register late Thursday, the VA said it will lift its ban on abortion counseling and established exceptions to its abortion restrictions at VA medical facilities and through its Civilian Health and Medical Program, known as CHAMPVA.

The change marks the first time VA physicians will be allowed to perform abortions on federal property, and they will be able to do so in states where the procedure is illegal.

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VA Secretary Denis McDonough has maintained that the VA has always had the legal authority to provide abortions and counseling, saying the department is not "statutorily prohibited," and has not provided them only because they were not included in the department's medical benefits package.

The proposed rule adds the services to the benefits package to ensure that veterans will be able to obtain abortions under the stated circumstances, according to VA Under Secretary for Health Dr. Shereef Elnahal.

"After Dobbs [the Supreme Court ruling that overturned federal protection of abortion rights], certain States have begun to enforce existing abortion bans and restrictions on care, and are proposing and enacting new ones, creating urgent risks to the lives and health of pregnant veterans and CHAMPVA beneficiaries in these States," Elnahal wrote in the proposed rule. "VA is taking this action because it has determined that providing access to abortion-related medical services is needed to protect the lives and health of veterans."

Abortions are banned in 11 states and sharply restricted in at least another 15.

In a statement released Friday, McDonough said that veterans should have access to health services when they need them.

"This is a patient safety decision," McDonough said. "Pregnant Veterans and VA beneficiaries deserve to have access to world-class reproductive care when they need it most."

Elnahal said the decision follows accepted standards of medical practice.

"We came to this decision after listening to VA health care providers and Veterans across the country, who sounded the alarm that abortion restrictions are creating a medical emergency for those we serve," Elnahal said in a statement to the press.

The proposal would go into effect as soon as it is published in the Federal Register, expected in the coming days. It will be subject to public comment and could be opposed through legal action.

Access to abortion has become a concern to women nationwide since the Supreme Court ruled in June to overturn the decision in the 1973 Roe v. Wade case. The court decision allowed states to institute their own abortion laws.

The ruling, Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, let 13 states immediately ban abortion or curtail it within 30 days -- including states that house more than 240,000 U.S. service members.

Of the 2 million women veterans in the U.S., 42% use VA health care and are of childbearing age, according to the Commonwealth Fund, a health care research institute. More than 417,000 people use the CHAMPVA program, including spouses and dependent children of certain disabled or deceased veterans.

The Department of Veterans Affairs operates 171 medical centers nationwide, one-fifth of which are located in states that have made abortion illegal or have sharply curtailed access to the procedure.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

Related: US Military Hospitals Have Performed Fewer Than 100 Abortions Since 2016

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