DOD seeks to maintain soldiers’ access to abortion
But others say the Dobbs decision won’t affect military recruiting much
Complaining of morning sickness, a U.S. Army Reserve soldier in her late teens or early 20s visited the Resources for Women Pregnancy Care Center in San Antonio in the fall of 2021. She told Client Services Director Lisa Muckenfuss that her unit was leaving for pre-deployment training in two or three days. If pregnant, she couldn’t deploy, so she was considering an abortion that day.
Approximately 230,000, or 17 percent, of the more than 1.3 million active-duty U.S. service members are women. Service members and their families typically move every two to four years. States now have more freedom to ban or restrict abortion due to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, which means abortion access for female service members will vary widely based on where they’re stationed. Abortion advocates expect 26 states to ban or significantly restrict abortion in the coming months. Critics of the court’s decision and military leaders have said the varying access may hurt recruiting and retaining women at a time when the military is struggling in these areas.
Since 1976, lawmakers have annually restricted federal funds from being used to perform abortions. Exceptions are authorized if the mother’s life is endangered or the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. Lawmakers made the restriction—known as the Hyde Amendment in honor of its sponsor, the late Congressman Henry Hyde, R-Ill., who championed the bill—permanent for military facilities in 1985.
Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Gilbert Cisneros Jr. sent a memorandum to Pentagon leaders on June 28 saying the Supreme Court’s decision did not prohibit doctors in military facilities from performing abortions as allowed by law. He also opined states may not prosecute federal employees who perform abortions authorized by federal law. Officials from the Defense and Justice department continue to evaluate state laws to determine how abortion restrictions would affect its personnel, military families, and retirees.
U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and 94 Democrat lawmakers introduced the Military Access to Reproductive Care and Health for Military Servicemembers Act on June 3, a bill that would repeal the Hyde Amendment. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., introduced an identical bill on June 7, and both proposals remain in committees for consideration.
“I think what we’re seeing here with the issue of the military is yet another way that the pro-abortion Democrats are trying to exploit a population in order to push their pro-abortion agenda,” said Eric Scheidler, executive director of the Pro-Life Action League. “People have a positive attitude toward the military, especially toward the men and women who serve. They’re creating this sort of fictional body of female soldiers who aren’t going to serve their country if they can’t get abortions.”
After the May leak of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs draft opinion, 25 U.S. senators led by Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., urged President Joe Biden to issue an executive order that would direct the Defense Department to assess the feasibility of assigning military personnel and their families based on access to “reproductive health care.”
Military.com reported in May that the Army was considering a policy that would allow soldiers to request a compassionate reassignment if they felt they were discriminated against based on gender, sex, religion, race, or pregnancy.
Citing the article in a July 12 hearing, U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., said, “I’m very concerned that we now have a military that believes where our service members ought to be assigned is based on whether or not the DoD agrees with the politics of that state.”
A provision to prevent the military from considering state laws when assigning service members was included in the Senate’s version of the annual defense bill that will be negotiated between the Senate and House before going to the president for his signature.
The renewed policy debates come at a time when the military is struggling to recruit and retain talent. Just 5 percent of women aged 16-21 surveyed in the summer of 2021 said they would definitely or probably serve in the military in the next few years. The percentage of young Americans who intend to join the military recently reached its lowest point since 2007, according to Defense Department data.
Critics fault the Defense Department for a whole host of issues regarding the retention of women, noted Family Research Council Senior Fellow Robert Maginnis. Women are 28 percent more likely than men to leave the military, according to a Government Accountability Office report. It cites family planning, lack of dependent care, and sexual assault as top concerns.
Democratic senators sent a letter to Biden on June 7 advocating using federal property for abortions, and urged Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on June 30 to hire advocates to help service members access abortions in states that prohibit the procedure. Administration officials have not publicly responded.
Maginnis said he doesn’t anticipate significant policy changes from the Pentagon because access to abortion is only one aspect of recruiting and retention of women. “There will no doubt be a certain percentage of women who will be discouraged and not retained if they don’t have access to abortion, but pro-lifers reject that as an immoral choice.” He anticipates a small percentage of women would consider abortion access a reason not to enlist or remain in uniform.
The soldier who visited the San Antonio pregnancy center later texted Muckenfuss, “A life shouldn’t be taken because of me.” She completed training but did not deploy because of the pregnancy.
“They’re just assuming that every female soldier wants to get an abortion at some time during her term of service, so we better be able to provide that,” added Scheidler. Instead, he said the military should continue to expand programs such as child care, college funds, leaves of absence and spaces for breastfeeding or breast pumping that encourage women to serve and have families. “I don’t think this really has anything to do with actually serving the needs of our soldiers; it’s really all about scoring more points in this abortion political battle.”
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