Military to Cover Travel Costs and Offer Leave for Troops Seeking Abortions, Fertility Treatment

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An operating room technician performs an ultrasound on a patient.
An operating room technician performs an ultrasound on a patient at a clinic, Wednesday, July 6, 2022. (AP Photo/Ted Jackson, File)

Service women will soon be able to have their travel expenses paid and receive up to three weeks of leave to obtain an abortion out of state or receive fertility treatments; they also will have up to 20 weeks to notify their commands that they are pregnant, according to three new Defense Department policies.

The department released policies Thursday designed to improve troops' access to reproductive health care and abortion services, clarifying a memo published in October by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin directing the service branches to ensure that their members could access abortions and reproductive health care that isn't covered by military health.

The first policy covers up to 21 days of leave for service members to get an abortion or obtain fertility treatments and for military personnel who accompany their spouse or dependent for such care, without taking those days from other leave allowances.

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According to the policy, the period of absence will be limited to the minimum number of days needed to receive the care and transportation.

The second memo calls for coverage of travel and transportation for those who must leave their duty station to obtain such care, while the third gives service members up to 20 weeks to inform their commands of a pregnancy -- a policy that would allow members to privately obtain an abortion if they choose.

The services have 30 days to implement the new policies, according to Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Gil Cisneros Jr.

"It is DoD policy that ... service members will be able to access lawfully available non-covered reproductive health care regardless of where they are stationed," state the policies, signed by Cisneros.

The U.S. Supreme Court decision that repealed Roe v. Wade triggered a slew of state laws banning or sharply curtailing pregnancy terminations. Shortly after the court announced its ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, Cisneros said the Pentagon would work to ensure that troops would be protected in states that have banned or restricted the procedure.

At least 13 states that are home to about 240,000 service members had "trigger" laws that banned elective abortions in most cases, with the exception when a woman's life is at risk or the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest.

Six states have total bans on abortion and are enforcing them, including Oklahoma, South Dakota, Missouri, Arkansas, Alabama and West Virginia -- all home to military populations of varying sizes.

Military hospitals can perform the procedure only if the mother's life is endangered or in cases of rape or incest, and until now, government-funded travel could be used for abortions only under those reasons as well.

There have been 91 abortions performed in U.S. military hospitals since 2016, at least two-thirds of which were for active-duty service women whose lives were threatened by their pregnancy or who were victims of a crime, according to a Defense Department report provided to Congress and obtained by Military.com.

Tricare, the military's civilian health benefits program, pays only for covered abortions and related mental health counseling but does not cover any services, including referrals and counseling, for elective abortions.

For fertility treatment, the DoD covers the cost of fertility counseling, in vitro fertilization and other advanced reproductive services for severely injured service members who are married.

Other married service members have the option to go to one of seven military treatment facilities that offer in vitro fertilization, artificial insemination and other fertility services and pay the cost.

They also can use Tricare for limited services that include diagnoses of conditions that cause infertility and correction of medical issues that may be the source.

But Tricare does not cover IVF, artificial insemination or any other advanced services. And no service member can access any of these benefits if they are unmarried.

The new policies will expand travel pay and other options for service members and their families who seek fertility treatments and non-covered abortions.

Under the policies, those seeking leave will be allowed up to 21 days, subject to commander approval. Commanders are encouraged to expedite such requests and have been directed not to interfere with them, according to the policies.

"To the greatest extent practicable, delay in granting an administrative absence should not result in an eligible Service member being unable to access the non-covered reproductive health care that served as the basis for the administrative absence request," the policy states.

The new policies also call for greater privacy regarding service members' health. To date, the military services have given troops two weeks to inform their commanders of a pregnancy -- a time frame that also required them to tell commanders that they were no longer pregnant if they had a miscarriage or an abortion.

The new policy gives troops up to 20 weeks and restricts health care providers from notifying commands as well.

Troops who learn they are pregnant and decide to carry their baby to term are encouraged, however, to seek medical care either at a military treatment facility or through Tricare no later than 12 weeks, according to the memo.

"The provider will assess whether the Service member's duties could adversely impact their health, their pregnancy or whether the pregnancy impacts the Service member's ability to safely accomplish their mission," the policy states. "While not all pregnancies will require significant alteration of the work environment, modification of job tasks may be required, based on medical advice and operational requirements, resulting in the need for limited or light duty status."

The new policies, according to DoD officials, "reinforce the Secretary of Defense's commitment to taking care of our people, ensuring their health and well-being, and ensuring the Force remains ready and resilient," according to a release.

"Our Service members and their families do not control where they are stationed, and due to the nature of military service, are frequently required to travel or move to meet operational requirements. The efforts taken by the Department today will not only ensure that Service members and their families are afforded time and flexibility to make private health care decisions, but will also ensure Service members are able to access non-covered reproductive health care regardless of where they are stationed.”

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

Related: Abortion Bans Will Affect 80,000 Female Troops and May Push More Out of the Military, Rand Says

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