The Department of Veterans Affairs provided 88 abortions in the first year that it offered the procedure, according to a document sent to Congress this month that was obtained by Military.com.
The number was given to the House Veterans Affairs Committee after the Republican-led panel threatened to subpoena the VA if it did not provide detailed data on the abortions it has provided.
While the department gave the committee top-line figures of how many abortions it performed, it declined to provide any more detailed data, citing privacy concerns -- prompting committee leaders to renew their subpoena threat.
The VA began offering abortions for the first time in September 2022 after states banned or severely restricted the procedure in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization. The ruling overturned 50 years of nationwide abortion rights granted by Roe v. Wade.
Under the VA policy, a veteran or covered dependent is eligible for an abortion if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, or their life or health is at risk because of the pregnancy.
Of the 88 abortions the VA provided through Sept. 30, 60 were medication abortions and 28 were surgical.
Nine were because the life of the mother was endangered by the pregnancy, and 15 were because the pregnancy was the result of rape. The remaining 64 were because the pregnancy threatened the mother's health.
"In more than one year of implementing the IFR, there have been fewer than 90 total abortions provided by the VA," VA Secretary Denis McDonough wrote in the Oct. 11 letter to Congress, using an acronym for Interim Final Rule, the formal name of the abortion policy. "During that same period, there have been more than 7,000 [babies delivered] by veterans enrolled in the Veterans Health Administration and covered by VA. As these numbers attest, VA has carefully adhered to the IFR's strictures."
The "health" exception is what Republicans have particularly taken issue with because it appears to go beyond the parameters of the so-called Hyde Amendment, which bans specific government funding from going toward abortion except in cases of rape, incest or where the life of the mother is at risk.
The VA, which maintains it is not one of the government agencies subject to the Hyde Amendment, has not publicly defined what it considers a health concern that would qualify a patient to receive an abortion.
In a letter to the VA last month, House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Mike Bost, R-Ill., and health subcommittee Chair Mariannette Miller-Meeks, R-Iowa, demanded the department provide them with the documented health concern for each abortion done because of health reasons. The pair also requested the department detail how many abortions have been performed at each Veterans Integrated Services Network, which are the geographic districts in which the VA organizes its health facilities, and the trimester in which each abortion was done.
In his response to Bost and Miller-Meeks, McDonough insisted that providing the level of detail they were demanding -- particularly which health concerns led to the abortions -- would violate patient privacy. VA headquarters is not collecting data about health determinations and would need to look through patients’ medical records to provide the committee the information it is seeking, McDonough wrote.
"The determination of whether the health of the veteran would be endangered if the pregnancy were carried to term goes to the heart of a veteran's relationship with her doctor," McDonough wrote. "VA is committed to providing high-quality comprehensive care to women that includes basic preventative care, acute care, chronic disease management, mental health care and reproductive health care such as maternity and gynecology care.”
VA has worked hard to build trust among this cohort of women veterans, and disclosing their confidential medical records would threaten to seriously jeopardize that trust," he wrote.
That explanation did not satisfy Bost and Miller-Meeks. In a letter being sent to McDonough on Thursday that was obtained by Military.com, the lawmakers gave the VA an Oct. 31 deadline to provide the rest of the data they asked for or else the committee could take "further action on this matter, including scheduling a committee vote to issue a subpoena."
"The data requested is critical to assessing whether the committee needs to take legislative action to address the 'health' reasons behind these abortion procedures that may show trends in the health circumstances of veterans," they wrote. "Such data would seem to be valuable to the largest integrated health care system in the country as well."
To address privacy concerns, they added, the committee is willing to take generalized data on the number of abortions performed for each health condition or review the data under supervision at VA offices.
"The committee is not asking for a disclosure of the name, age, race or address of the person who received the procedure or a disclosure of any medical records to anyone at VA or to the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs," they wrote. "We are simply asking that the doctors who performed the abortion or referred a veteran to a non-department provider for the procedure review the records and provide data to VA on the specific condition that warranted the 'health' determination necessitating an abortion for compilation and transmittal to Congress."
The showdown over the data is the latest confrontation between congressional Republicans and the VA over the abortion policy.
The Senate earlier this year rejected Republican-sponsored legislation that would have reversed the VA policy. House Republicans included a provision in their draft of the 2024 VA spending bill to ban the department from providing abortions that don't comply with the Hyde Amendment, prompting a veto threat from the White House.
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on X @reporterkheel.