Abortion bans cause privacy, financial issues for service members, despite DoD’s efforts

Pregnant service members will need permission from commanders to take leave to get medical care.

The Defense Department is promising to continue covered abortions for pregnant service members and civilian employees after the Supreme Court’s ruling last week striking down Roe v. Wade. However, the decision still has serious repercussions for Pentagon employees who are seeking an abortion when it does not involve rape, incest or medical harm.

Military personnel analysts told Federal News Network the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case could make it harder for service members and civilians in states banning abortion to seek reproductive health care and could jeopardize their privacy.

The repercussions of the case make it especially trying for people who want an abortion and work in a career field where their bodily fitness is paramount and where stigmas against pregnancies are still prevalent. Despite efforts from DoD to give service members an opportunity to start a family, take parental leave and allow troops to recover fully from childbirth, pregnancy can still be disruptive to careers. That compounds with the same stressors those in the civilian world face around pregnancy and abortion.

In the wake of the Dobbs decision, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on June 24 that DoD will continue to provide seamless access to reproductive healthcare as permitted by federal law.

The Pentagon released its first guidance on the issue four days later.

“Federal law restricts the department from performing abortions or paying to have them performed unless the life of the mother would be endangered if the fetus were carried to term or unless the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest,” Gilbert Cisneros, Defense undersecretary for personnel and readiness, wrote.

The Supreme Court decision does not prevent DoD from performing those “covered abortions” in its medical facilities, even in states where abortion in any form is banned.

Things become more complex for service members who are not in those situations, but decide an abortion is right for them.

As of June 30, seven states have banned abortions. A total of 17 states are expected to ban most abortions if legal challenges in those states do not hold up. An additional six states would restrict abortions, such as Florida which bans abortion after 15 weeks.

Some pregnant service members seeking uncovered abortions would have to travel hundreds of miles to find care.

However, the Pentagon’s hands are largely tied from doing more to aid service members in those cases due to federal law, Katherine Kuzminski, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security told Federal News Network.

Cisneros’s memo states service members can still take leave to find abortion care.

“Access to emergency convalescent leave remains unchanged for all service members,” he wrote. DoD civilian employees may continue to request sick leave and other forms of leave as necessary to meet the health care needs of the employee and his or her family members.”

Cisneros added that the implications of the decision are complicated and “must be evaluated against various state laws, together with the views of the Department of Justice.”

Taking that leave can be a complex and time sensitive issue for service members, however.

“If a person needs to leave the area for this type of medical care, then there has to be a conversation with the chain of command because you can’t just leave,” Tammy Smith, former Army personnel chief, told Federal News Network. “There’s a leave form where there’s a process, there’s accountability, there’s all these things unique to our military community.”

The bottom line is that service members must get permission from their commanding officer before taking time off to go get an abortion in another state. Otherwise, they risk criminal punishment.

“The leadership answer to that is that there needs to be some signaling and some conversation,” Smith said. “Commanders need to be speaking up and saying that there is a place where you can have these conversations. These are difficult conversations to talk about human sexuality. That’s one of the most awkward conversations that you can maybe have with somebody who is a coworker or somebody is a member of your squad or platoon.”

Kuzminski said leave requests can lead to uncomfortable situations. If someone needs to take leave quickly to get an abortion, they may need to disclose that they are pregnant to their superior officer to explain the reasoning for the leave.

“The decision rests with the unit level commander,” she said. “There could be challenges there as well depending on the needs of the military and the needs of the unit. It could also bring into question the individual commanders flexibility for such a decision.”

Another issue for pregnant service members taking leave to travel to another state for an abortion is the incurred costs. DoD is prohibited from reimbursing service members for getting that care. Travel plus the procedure and prescription drugs can easily get into the thousands of dollars.

“I don’t necessarily know that DoD has much in the way of options,” Kuzminski said in terms of financially aiding service members.

The costs could be unsustainable for many service members. In 2021, Feeding America estimated that 160,000 active duty service members were food insecure due to poverty.

The organization estimated that nearly 30% of junior ranks were food insecure, the same service members who are in their childbearing years. E-1s to E-4s make between $19,000 and $41,000 a year.

Smith said there may be some relief for service members. Organizations like Army Emergency Relief (AER), a nonprofit that offers grants and loans to soldiers for emergencies, could provide funds. Federal News Network reached out to AER, but they did not respond by the time of publication.

The Dobbs ruling is just one of the handful of recent battles between conservative state laws and the military this year.

In March, the Air Force offered medical and legal help to military families living in states clamping down on LGBTQ+ and transgender children.

“The health, care and resilience of our Department of the Air Force personnel and their families is not just our top priority — it’s essential to our ability to accomplish the mission,” said Air Force Undersecretary Gina Ortiz Jones. “We are closely tracking state laws and legislation to ensure we prepare for and mitigate effects to our airmen, guardians and their families. Medical, legal resources, and various assistance are available for those who need them.”

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