The Department of Defense (DoD) announced on June 28 that it would keep performing abortions for servicemembers “consistent with federal law.” The Pentagon announced the policy in a memorandum signed by DoD undersecretary Gilbert Cisneros, first reported by ABC.
It’s an affirmation to servicemembers that there will be little change in the Pentagon’s existing policy, but the memo acknowledged that it isn’t quite that simple. “This decision will have significant implications for our Service members, dependents, and other beneficiaries of DoD health care services, and civilian employees, as well as the readiness of the Force,” the memo said. “The implications of the Supreme Court’s decision are complicated and must be evaluated against various state laws, together with the views of the Department of Justice.”
America has hundreds of military bases in every single state. The bases are built on federal land and subject to federal law, not state and local laws. “It is the Department of Justice’s long standing position that States generally may not impose criminal or civil liability on federal employees who perform their duties in a manner authorized by federal law,” the memo said. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t tensions, challenges, and a host of complications.
This would, presumably, allow service members in states with harsh abortion laws like Louisiana and Texas to continue to receive treatment. For example, Texas doctors have largely stopped performing abortions, but the DoD says it will perform abortions if the mother is “endangered if the fetus were carried to term,” or if “the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.” Texas hosts 15 military bases, including Fort Hood which is one of the largest in the country and hosts tens of thousands of troops at any given time.
Another wrinkle is the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal funds to pay for an abortion unless it’s a life saving treatment or the pregnancy arrose from rape or incest. The memo noted this and was careful in its language to explain it would continue to perform what it called “covered” abortions.
“The Supreme Court’s decision does not prohibit the Department from continuing to perform covered abortions consistent with federal law,” the Pentagon said. “There will be interruption to this care. Health care providers will continue to follow existing departmental policy, and then leadership of military medical treatment facilities will implement measures to ensure continued access to care.”
The memo also said that the decision wouldn’t affect the Pentagon’s leave policies and that servicemembers could travel, if they needed, to receive abortion care. “Either as Government-funded, official travel for a covered abortion, or at the Service member’s own expense on regular leave for all other cases.”
The Pentagon is walking a delicate line here. Women are playing a larger role in the military, there is often already tension between military bases and the communities where they reside, and sexual assault is an epidemic in the force. Fort Hood in Texas has one of the highest rates of suicide and sexual assault in the military. The memo said that the Pentagon will keep the status quo, but it also acknowledged the increased complexity and added tension to a system that’s already under incredible strain.
What happens, for example, if a servicemember leaves the state to seek an abortion? Will that be tracked and by whom? Will the federal government protect them should state law prohibit residents from traveling across state lines for care? What if the patient is a family member of the servicemember? The troubles around the military and abortion are just beginning.