Updated Oct 20, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Defense Department to give travel funds for troops seeking abortions

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaking at the Pentagon in July 2022.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaking at the Pentagon in July 2022. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

The Department of Defense will give travel funds and support for troops and their dependents who are seeking an abortion but live in states that have banned the medical procedure, according to a new order from Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on Thursday.

Why it matters: Austin said the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in June has had "readiness, recruiting, and retention implications" for the armed forces.

  • Along with covering travel expenses for troops or their dependents, the order also requires the department to create a program to support Department of Defense health care providers who face civil or criminal penalties for providing abortion services are allowed by federal law.
  • DoD health care providers will also be prevented from disclosing a soldier's reproductive health information to commanders unless there is a risk of harm to a mission, occupational safety requirements or if acute medical conditions are interfering with the soldier's duties, according to the order.

What they're saying: "Since the Supreme Court's decision, we have heard concerns from many of our Service members and their families about the complexity and the uncertainty that they now face in accessing reproductive health care, including abortion services," Austin said in the order.

  • "I am committed to the Department taking all appropriate action, within its authority and consistent with applicable federal law, as soon as possible to ensure that our Service members and their families can access reproductive health care and our health care providers can operate effectively," he continued.

The Department of Defense has not returned Axios' request for comment.

Our thought bubble, via Axios' Oriana Gonzalez: Under federal law, federal money cannot be used to pay for an abortion outside of the exceptions for rape, incest or if the pregnancy is determined to endanger the woman’s life.

  • The Pentagon’s directive, which says it’ll use department funds pay for travel expenses and not directly for abortions, could potentially trigger legal challenges as to how the law’s language should be interpreted in the post-Roe era.

Context: The Defense Department previously did not have a policy to accommodate service members or employees who are seeking an abortion but are stationed in a state that has outlawed the procedure.

  • The Department of Veterans Affairs has also had to explicitly state its stance on abortion after Roe's overturn, with it saying in September that it plans to provide abortions in cases of rape, incest and when birth may present a danger to a woman's health "regardless of state restrictions."
  • A Department of Justice taskforce released an opinion in late September saying states cannot impose civil or criminal penalties on VA doctors and nurses who provide abortion services that are allowed by federal law.

The big picture: President Biden said in an upcoming interview with NowThis that he would support a federal fund for people who need to take time off work and pay for childcare to obtain an abortion.

  • He also said earlier this week he would make an abortion rights bill the first piece of legislation he will send to Congress next year if Democrats elect more senators and his party keeps control of the House.

Go deeper ... First look: Biden backs federal fund for abortion support

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