Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III briefs the press from the Pentagon Briefing Room, Washington, DC, Feb. 19, 2021. Photo by US Air Force Staff Sgt. Jack Sanders.
The Defense Department will fund travel for service members and dependents seeking abortions if they are stationed in states where abortion is or becomes illegal, according to a Pentagon memo released Thursday, Oct. 20.
Signed by Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, the memo lays out guidance that military leaders should ensure access to abortion in the wake of the Supreme Court's Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization decision in June that overturned Roe v. Wade.
The memo directed leaders to:
After the Dobbs v. Jackson decision, close to half of US states — including many in the military-heavy South — either have or are expected to restrict or eliminate abortion services. As a result, many military members and dependents assigned to bases in those states would need to travel outside their own states to reach legal abortion services.
U.S. Air Force personnel stand in formation during the 60th Air Mobility Wing assumption of command ceremony at Travis Air Force Base, Calif., Sept. 18, 2018. Col. Jeff Nelson assumed command of Air Mobility Command’s largest wing. (U.S. Air Force photo by Heide Couch)
"Our Service members and their families are often required to travel or move to meet our staffing, operational, and training requirements," Austin wrote in the memo. "Such moves should not limit their access to reproductive health care."
Austin’s memo is almost certain to meet resistance from Republican lawmakers. Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wisconsin, the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a recent hearing that the military should not allow troops to choose assignments based on abortion access.
"I should not be able to tell my chain of command where to send me based on whether I agree or disagree with a state’s laws," Gallagher said in a July hearing. "An apolitical, professional military is the hallmark of our American democracy."
However, some military officials have framed abortion access as a detriment to recruiting. “We have concerns that some service members may choose to leave the military altogether because they may be stationed in states with restrictive reproductive health laws,” Gil Cisneros, the Pentagon’s chief of personnel and readiness, told a congressional hearing in July, according to The Washington Post.
Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder conducts a press briefing at the Pentagon, Washington, DC, Aug. 31, 2022. Photo by US Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jack Sanders.
Austin’s memo directed leaders to “establish travel and transportation allowances for Service members and their dependents […] to access non-covered reproductive health care that is unavailable within the local area of a Service member’s permanent duty station.”
Pentagon press secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said there was no hard schedule for implementing travel or payment plans but that Austin’s memo was meant to set a framework around which policies will be developed.
“We took a very thoughtful and deliberate approach,” Ryder said. “It will be incumbent on commanders to be mindful not only of readiness of their units but of the privacy and well-being of their service members.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson earlier in 2022 moved abortion access to the forefront of national politics by leaving it up to states to regulate. According to The New York Times, most abortions are now banned in 13 states, with legal action underway surrounding proposed laws in 10 more.
Austin said any forthcoming funding would only cover travel costs. Under the Hyde Amendment, federal funds cannot pay for abortion care except for in cases of rape, incest, or when the mother’s life is in danger.
Jenna Biter is a staff writer at Coffee or Die Magazine. She has a master’s degree in national security and is a Russian language student. When she’s not writing, Jenna can be found reading classics, running, or learning new things, like the constellations in the night sky. Her husband is on active duty in the US military. Know a good story about national security or the military? Email Jenna.
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