The Department of Veterans Affairs is taking steps to secure its facilities as it starts offering abortion services for the first time, VA Secretary Denis McDonough told reporters Monday.
While McDonough stressed he has no specific indications of protests or threats that could disrupt VA services, he framed the measures as precautionary and "prudent."
"We're taking appropriate precautions, working with interagency, making sure that we have a good handle on what to expect," McDonough said at a reporter roundtable hosted by the Defense Writers Group. "We're working closely, obviously, with [the] VA Police force -- we have the largest police force in the federal government -- to make sure that we're taking, as I say, prudent and appropriate steps to protect our veterans and our facilities."
In addition to the police force, McDonough said the inspector general's office also plays a role in security and so "we're obviously working closely with the inspector general's office."
McDonough's comments come after he revealed at a congressional hearing last week that the department had already performed its first abortion, just a couple of weeks after the agency issued the rule expanding its medical coverage to include abortion services and counseling.
In addition to a long history of protests outside abortion providers in the United States, there have also been instances of anti-abortion violence. At least 11 people -- including doctors, clinic employees, a clinic escort, a security guard and a police officer -- were killed between 1993 and 2016 in the United States and Canada, according to pro-abortion rights group NARAL. Between 1977 and 2015, there were at least 42 bombings and 185 arson attacks, according to the group.
Under a rule published in the Federal Register earlier this month, the VA will provide abortions for veterans, as well as beneficiaries of its CHAMPVA coverage, in cases where the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, or where the life or health of the mother is at risk by carrying the pregnancy. The department will also offer abortion counseling, or consultations about how to handle an unwanted pregnancy, including where abortion services are provided, to any veteran who requests it.
The change in coverage was prompted by a Supreme Court ruling in June that overturned the 50-year-old precedent of Roe v. Wade, which guaranteed abortion rights nationwide.
The Supreme Court ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization set off waves of anti-abortion legislation in Republican-run states. At least 14 states have banned or nearly banned abortion since the Supreme Court's decision, while another nine have moved to restrict abortion but have been blocked by courts from enforcing the restrictions amid pending legal challenges.
In addition to the possibility of protests and threats, the specter of prosecution has been raised against VA doctors who perform abortions that contradict state law. For example, Alabama's attorney general said earlier this month he has "no intention of abdicating my duty to enforce” the state’s law banning abortion while suggesting he could prosecute VA doctors who conduct abortions in cases of rape or incest, something the law does not allow.
In a legal analysis issued last week, the Justice Department affirmed its opinion that federal law allows the VA to cover abortions, that federal law supersedes state law and that states "may not penalize VA employees for providing such services, whether through criminal prosecution, civil litigation or license revocation proceedings." The Justice Department also said it would defend any providers that states try to prosecute for following VA's rules.
But McDonough acknowledged on Monday that the threat of being prosecuted could still deter some doctors from performing abortions. Still, there are no "imminent plans" for additional steps to reassure doctors beyond the Justice Department opinion, McDonough added.
"We will continue to stay in touch with our providers to see what more they need or would like to see," he said.
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.