Six Months After New Abortion Leave Policy, Pentagon Doesn't Know How Many Troops Have Used It

Joint chiefsof staff empty picture frames.
Picture frames reserved for photos of the Army chief of staff, commandant of the Marine Corps, and chief of naval operations hang empty in a Pentagon hallway, Aug. 14, 2023. (DoD photo by Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jack Sanders)

As an Alabama senator's ongoing protest over the Pentagon's abortion leave policy has left three service chief positions vacant, a key question remains: How many service members have actually used the policy to seek abortions?

Nearly six months after it was implemented, the Pentagon can't answer that question.

That's because it only asked the military services this month to start tracking data on use of the policy, which covers travel and leave for service members who need abortions or fertility treatments. The Pentagon hadn't collected it before despite Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville's months-long hold on Senate confirmations over what he claims could be thousands of service member abortions. That hold has left the Army, Navy and Marine Corps without permanent uniformed leaders.

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On Aug. 1, Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Gil Cisneros issued a memo directing the military departments and other Defense Department components to set up ways to collect and report data on cost and usage of the policy, a defense official told this week.

The services have until January to provide the data to Cisneros' office, and the figures are expected to reflect cost and usage through Dec. 31, the official added.

The standoff with Tuberville has no apparent end in sight, and the effects have been racking up. Most recently, the chief of naval operations stepped down Monday, leaving only an acting chief to lead the service.

"While we are monitoring the implementation of these policies through existing processes, we do not currently have a way to accurately capture the data, as the services need time to refine their systems to capture this information," the official said. "To ensure accurate data collection, we are providing the military services time to develop and implement the tracking mechanisms."

Officials would not answer a follow-up question about why the direction to track the data came months after the policy was implemented. They also would not provide a copy of the memo.

In mid-February, the Pentagon announced it would allow service members to take administrative leave and be reimbursed for travel expenses if they need to go far from where they are based in order to get reproductive health care that is not covered by the military. The benefits were available starting in March.

The policy was crafted in response to last year's Supreme Court ruling that allowed states to ban abortion, raising concerns that female service members who do not get to choose where they are stationed could lose access to reproductive health care if they are based in states that have since passed bans or new restrictions.

While most of the attention on the Pentagon policy has been related to abortion, the policy also applies to assisted reproductive technology, such as in vitro fertilization.

Shortly after the Pentagon's February announcement, Tuberville announced he was placing a "hold" on all general and flag officer nominees until the department drops the policy. The hold has meant that hundreds of normally non-controversial military nominees have been unable to be quickly confirmed like they usually are.

As the hold drags on, about 300 generals and admirals have had their promotions stalled, and the Army, Navy and Marine Corps are all being led by acting chiefs, because replacements weren't confirmed before the previous chiefs hit their legally mandated term limits. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff will also be empty by the end of September if the standoff isn't resolved.

But even as vacancies mount, both sides appear to be digging in their heels.

Asked Tuesday whether the Pentagon would be open to changing the policy in any way to compromise with Tuberville, deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh said, "No."

"A service member in Alabama deserves to have the same access to health care as a service member in California as a service member stationed in Korea," she told reporters at a briefing. "We've been very clear we don't have anything to negotiate with here."

Tuberville, for his part, has not backed down from his insistence that the Pentagon fully repeal the policy or Congress enshrine it in law.

"Secretary [Lloyd] Austin could end the holds TODAY if he wanted to," Tuberville spokesperson Steven Stafford said in an email to reporters Wednesday responding to Singh. "But the Biden administration seems to think that illegally spending taxpayer dollars on abortion is more important than getting their senior military nominees confirmed."

Tuberville contends that the Pentagon will go from paying for roughly a dozen abortions a year performed only in cases of rape, incest or when the mother is dying from the pregnancy, to potentially thousands of abortions performed for any reason.

"It just makes me that much stronger to hear people complain about this, knowing that deep down somewhere, there is a soft part in their hearts for 4,000 to 5,000 unborn babies who will never breathe life on this Earth," Tuberville said on the Senate floor last month.

Supporters of the policy, meanwhile, have cast the numbers of troops expected to use the policy as negligible compared to the overall size of the force and $800 billion defense budget.

"The cost is very much de minimis," Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., told reporters last month, adding that the number of troops expected to use the policy is "very, very small."

Tuberville's projection is based on an estimate from a 2022 Rand Corp. report that between 2,573 and 4,136 active-duty service women have abortions annually. But the authors of the report have said it is likely fewer women would take advantage of the Pentagon policy since some are stationed in states without abortion restrictions and others will be uncomfortable disclosing health information to their commanders.

It is unclear if the Pentagon has a more accurate projection. Asked for a projection, the defense official who spoke to pointed to the Rand Corp. report figure, and officials did not answer a follow-up question on whether they believe every service member who gets an abortion will use the policy.

Still, once the Pentagon gets cost and usage data from the services, the numbers will not show how many troops used the policy to get an abortion compared with other reproductive health care. While service members who want to use the travel stipend and leave have to disclose they are getting some form of reproductive health care, they do not have to specify whether it is for an abortion.

Further, the military will track the number of instances of travel or administrative absences rather than the number of individuals who use the policy "due to privacy concerns," the defense official said.

"Tracking of the data will support effective monitoring and oversight," the official said, "and help ensure proper implementation of these policies by service members, dependents and their commands while responsibly managing taxpayer dollars."

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

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