The Pentagon faced its own dilemma with the Supreme Court’s landmark decision to overturn Roe v. Wade Friday, scrambling to determine what impact an abortion ban could have on thousands of women assigned to military bases in states where the practice may soon be illegal or sharply restricted.
Texas, for example, is one of more than a dozen states with so-called “trigger laws” already on the books to declare abortion illegal in the event of a Supreme Court ruling. It is also home to 15 active-duty posts including Fort Hood, where 40,000 Army soldiers are stationed.
The Pentagon oversees branches of service with personnel in every state, with the vast majority of its female soldiers, sailors and Marines of child-bearing age.
“Nothing is more important to me or to this department than the health and well-being of our service members, the civilian workforce and [Department of Defense] families,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said in a statement released after the Supreme Court’s ruling was released. “The department is examining this decision closely and evaluating our policies to ensure we continue to provide seamless access to reproductive health care as permitted by federal law.”
The military’s health care program, known as TRICARE, covers abortions only when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest or the mother’s life is at risk. A doctor must certify that the abortion was performed because the life of the mother would be endangered if the fetus was carried to term. TRICARE also covers the direct family of the service member.
A number of Democratic lawmakers want the military to directly provide abortion services and cover costs for troops who intend to travel to another state where the procedure would still be legal.
Rep. Jackie Speier, chair of the House Armed Services military personnel subcommittee, said women in the armed forces have unintended pregnancy rates at a rate 22% greater than their civilian peers, and many are in states that will likely embrace tighter abortion access laws.
“Many also don’t have the luxury of traveling off-base, thousands of miles and for days out of time to pay out of pocket to receive the care they need and deserve,” Ms. Speier, California Democrat, said in a statement. “The fallout for our service members and their families will be catastrophic, as is the threat to our military readiness, morale, and unit cohesion.”
Rep. Veronica Escobar, Texas Democrat, has the Army’s huge Fort Bliss in her El Paso-area district.
“The very service members who fight for our rights and freedoms abroad must not have their own stripped from them at home,” she said, in announcing her support for the MARCH for Servicemembers Act, which would provide abortion support for women in the military.
Last month, several Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill, including Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, sent Mr. Austin a letter expressing their concerns about the impact a Supreme Court decision could have on the force.
“This decision will serve as a threat to recruitment and retention as service members elect to leave the military rather than [transfer] to a duty station where they and their family will be denied fundamental rights,” the senators wrote. “Good order and discipline is placed at risk as service members must consider whether to break state laws — including proposed laws that would seek to criminalize crossing state lines to obtain an abortion.”
The senators said Pentagon officials should, at a minimum, allow military members to obtain special leave in order to travel out of state for abortions if they are in an area where it may soon be illegal for them.