The Pentagon will cover some travel and transportation costs for service members who serve in states where abortion is restricted or illegal, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Thursday in a memo that lays out the broad strokes of military policy on the hot-button issue in a post-Roe world.
Saying that limits on access to reproductive health care in some states “will interfere with our ability to recruit, retain and maintain the readiness” of the U.S. military, the defense secretary tried to answer outstanding questions about how the Pentagon will approach abortions following the Supreme Court’s June decision reversing the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling, which established a national right to abortion.
In the three-page document, Mr. Austin said the Pentagon will establish new privacy rules for pregnant women, including an extension to 20 weeks into a pregnancy that service members have to notify commanders of their pregnancy. The directive also puts in place new protections for Defense Department health care providers who provide abortions to service members in limited circumstances — such as pregnancies resulting from rape or those in which the mother’s life is threatened — in states where most abortions may be outlawed. In addition, the Pentagon will reimburse some expenses for military doctors who want to obtain licenses in new states in order to provide reproductive services to military personnel, Mr. Austin said.
But perhaps the most notable new policies involve direct support, in the form of money and time off, for pregnant soldiers, sailors and Marines who must leave their base and travel across state lines to get an abortion. Under the new directive, Mr. Austin said military officials should create new uniform policies to allow for “appropriate administrative absence” for those women — meaning the absences won’t count against their personal leave.
The Defense Department also should cover some of the travel costs associated with the trip, the secretary said.
“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,” Mr. 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,” he wrote. “In my judgment, such effects qualify as unusual, extraordinary, hardship or emergency circumstances for service members and their dependents and will interfere with our ability to recruit, retain and maintain the readiness of a highly qualified force.”
To address those issues, Mr. Austin has a new mandate for the Defense Department: “Establish travel and transportation allowances for service members and their dependents … to facilitate official travel to access non-covered reproductive health care that is unavailable within the local area of a service member’s permanent duty station.”
The details of the policy are still being hammered out, defense officials told reporters on a conference call Thursday. It’s not clear how much such a program could cost or if there are any hard monetary caps on the expenses.
Defense Department officials also stressed that even in states where most abortions are banned, military doctors will continue to perform the practice in cases where the mother’s life is in danger or if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. Military doctors performed 91 such abortions from 2016 to 2021, officials said.