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Protesters gather in support of abortion access on May 14, 2022, during a march outside the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C.

Protesters gather in support of abortion access on May 14, 2022, during a march outside the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. (Caitlin Doornbos/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — Defense Department health care providers will continue performing abortions in cases of rape, incest or if the mother's life is endangered despite some states banning such procedures, Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Gilbert Cisneros wrote in a memorandum issued Tuesday.

The announcement follows a Supreme Court ruling issued Friday that overturned Roe v. Wade, a landmark case that for nearly 50 years kept states from banning abortions. Some 16 states have or are expected to ban abortions — some with no exception for rape or incest, according to Associated Press.

Federal law already barred the Defense Department from performing or funding abortions — except in cases of rape or incest or when the life of the mother would be endangered if the pregnancy were carried to term, according to the Pentagon.

“The Supreme Court’s decision does not prohibit the department from continuing to perform covered abortions, consistent with federal law,” Cisneros said. “There will be no interruption to this care.”

Should charges or lawsuits be filed against Defense Department abortion providers or beneficiaries in places where state laws conflict with the federally covered abortions, the Pentagon will help secure attorneys for them, he said.

“It is the Department of Justice’s longstanding 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,” Cisneros said. “We will work with the Department of Justice to ensure access to counsel for such civilian employees and service members if needed and as appropriate.”

Though the ruling does not affect the Defense Department’s existing abortion practices, he noted it will still impact DOD personnel and others who seek abortions for other reasons in states where abortion is outlawed.

“This decision will have significant implications for our service members, dependents, other beneficiaries of DOD health care services and civilian employees, as well as readiness of the force,” Cisneros said.

Affected service members may take leave and travel to receive abortion care in states where it is legal, and DOD civilian employees “may continue to request sick leave and other forms of leave as necessary” to seek health care, the undersecretary said.

“Access to emergency or convalescent leave remains unchanged for all service members,” Cisneros said. “… [Civilian] sick leave may be used to cover travel that is necessary to obtain any type of medical treatment.”

The Pentagon is continuing to review the implications of the Supreme Court decision and will issue additional guidance when necessary, he 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,” Cisneros said. “We are reviewing our current policies and procedures and, along with the secretaries of the military departments and the DOD Office of General Counsel, will assess the impact of DOD policies and state laws triggered by the ruling on DOD personnel and beneficiaries.”

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Caitlin Doornbos covers the Pentagon for Stars and Stripes after covering the Navy’s 7th Fleet as Stripes’ Indo-Pacific correspondent at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan. Previously, she worked as a crime reporter in Lawrence, Kan., and Orlando, Fla., where she was part of the Orlando Sentinel team that placed as finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news. Caitlin has a Bachelor of Science in journalism from the University of Kansas and master’s degree in defense and strategic studies from the University of Texas at El Paso.
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