The Defense Department said Thursday it will cover travel and transportation expenses for service members and dependents who need to travel to obtain an abortion following a Supreme Court ruling in June striking down constitutional protections for the procedure.
Service members will also be able to request an "administrative absence" from their duty stations if they need time off for an abortion, meaning that time won't be taken out of their normal leave, according to the department and a memo by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announcing the changes.
The high court's decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization overturned nearly 50 years of precedent from Roe v. Wade, which ensured abortion rights nationwide. At least 14 states have banned or severely restricted abortion since the ruling, while another nine have bans that are on hold because of court orders.
"Our service members and their families are often required to travel or move to meet our staffing, operational and training requirements. Such moves should not limit their access to reproductive health care," Austin wrote in the memo. "The practical effects of recent changes are that significant numbers of service members and their families may be forced to travel greater distances, take more time off from work and pay more out-of-pocket expenses to receive reproductive health care."
The new policies announced in Austin's memo have to be completed by the end of the year and implementation will be overseen by the under secretary for personnel and readiness.
Officials said they are still working out the exact details of the policies, including how to balance privacy concerns with ensuring that requests for absences and travel allowances are granted. A defense official suggested service members may be able to say generally they are seeking reproductive health care, rather specifying they are getting an abortion.
"As we develop those policies, the goal is to also provide additional privacy in making those decisions. But in doing so, we recognize that we may need to have a little bit of information about why they may need to take those programs, but it may just be with respect to health care and reproductive health care without necessarily providing details," a defense official told reporters on condition on anonymity under ground rules set by the department.
The travel allowance will be available for abortions for any reason -- rather than just the narrow circumstances under which federal law allows the military to perform abortions, officials said.
But the allowance can be used only on the cost of travel. Service members will still have to cover the procedure themselves. Some other reproductive health care not covered by the Pentagon, such as in vitro fertilization, will also be eligible for the travel allowance, officials added.
Shortly after the Dobbs decision, the Pentagon stressed that it would still provide abortions in cases where federal law allows it to and vowed to find ways to further protect service members' access to abortion.
The Pentagon is largely barred from performing abortions except for cases of rape, incest or where the mother's life is in danger. There have been 91 abortions performed in U.S. military hospitals since 2016, according to data provided to Congress earlier this year.
Democratic lawmakers and pro-abortion rights advocates have expressed concern the Dobbs decision will particularly harm service members since troops do not get to choose where they are stationed and the biggest military bases in the country are in some of the conservative states passing anti-abortion laws.
Democrats have introduced several bills to ensure service members can take leave to get an abortion or to repeal the restriction on Pentagon-provided abortions. But the bills are not likely to pass with Democrats' razor-thin majorities and legislation needing 60 votes to advance in the Senate.
Further, Republicans are expected to gain control of at least the House in November's midterm elections. President Joe Biden earlier this week vowed to sign a bill protecting abortion rights if voters give Democrats a big enough majority in November, while Republicans in Congress have introduced a bill that would ban abortion nationwide after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
Defense officials on Thursday downplayed the notion that there was a sense of urgency to announce policy changes before the midterms, with Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder saying the department has taken a "very deliberate and thoughtful approach" to the issue.
"Taking care of people continues to be the No. 1 priority," Ryder told reporters at a public briefing Thursday. "There is no timeline in terms of we can't work fast enough when it comes to our people."
Concerns have also been raised that military doctors could be deterred from performing abortions allowed under federal law over fear of state prosecution or civil action if they live in places that have banned abortion.
While defense officials stressed that federal law already protects military doctors if they perform abortions in their official duties, they also said they are taking steps to reassure doctors. Those include promising to reimburse fees if doctors want to be relicensed in a different state, as well as indemnification if they face legal action. The Justice Department could also provide legal representation in a criminal prosecution, a defense official said.
"Bottom line is, we just want to support our providers," the official said.
Other actions the department said it will take to ensure service members have access to reproductive health care include trying to improve privacy by clarifying when health providers can share reproductive information with commanders; standardizing and extending the timeline for service members to inform their commanders about a pregnancy to 20 weeks; and providing direction to ensure commanders "exercise objectivity and discretion" when handling reproductive issues.
Health care providers will not be able to share information with commanders unless there's a possibility of "risk of harm to mission," according to Austin's memo. Officials indicated they are still working out what that means, but suggested it could include when a task would endanger the pregnancy or when a deployment is imminent.
The department also pledged to improve awareness of existing reproductive health care resources it provides, including by expanding walk-in contraception services at all military treatment facilities with the appropriate clinical capability.
"Our greatest strength is our people," Austin wrote. "There is no higher priority than taking care of our people, and ensuring their health and well-being. The Department of Defense will continue to closely evaluate our policies to ensure that we continue to provide seamless access to reproductive health care as appropriate and consistent with federal law."
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.