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Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III at the Pentagon, July 20, 2022. The Defense Department announced Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022, that it’s updating military policies to protect access to abortions for female service members and back up health providers and doctors in states where laws prohibit the controversial procedure.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III at the Pentagon, July 20, 2022. The Defense Department announced Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022, that it’s updating military policies to protect access to abortions for female service members and back up health providers and doctors in states where laws prohibit the controversial procedure. (Chad McNeeley/Department of Defense)

WASHINGTON — The Defense Department announced Thursday that it’s updating military policies to protect access to abortions for female service members and back up health providers and doctors in states where laws prohibit the controversial procedure.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a memo that the updated policies are designed to protect and enhance access to reproductive health for women in the armed forces, including added safeguards for privacy and financial support for service members who must travel to obtain an abortion.

The policy updates are a response to President Joe Biden’s directives that all federal agencies identify and evaluate ways to protect access to reproductive health care after the Supreme Court in June struck down Roe v. Wade — the landmark 1973 ruling that granted legalized abortion nationwide.

The ruling allowed a number of states to pass laws that either partially or entirely ban abortions. Laws in some states, including Texas, also state anyone who helps a woman obtain an abortion — such as physicians and friends — can be held legally liable.

“Since the Supreme Court’s decision, we have heard concerns from many of our service members and their families about the complexity and the uncertainty that they now face in accessing reproductive health care, including abortion services,” Austin wrote in the memo. “We also recognize that recent developments may create legal and financial risk for our health care providers as they carry out their lawful federal duties.

“I am committed to the department taking all appropriate action, within its authority and consistent with applicable federal law, as soon as possible to ensure that our service members and their families can access reproductive health care and our health care providers can operate effectively.”

Military officials said the policy updates fall under four categories — preserving privacy, protecting health care providers, ensuring access to reproductive health care and improving awareness.

On privacy, one policy update orders commanders to display “objectivity and discretion when addressing reproductive health care matters” and underscores their duty to enforce existing policies “against discrimination and retaliation in the context of reproductive health care choices.” Service members will also be given more time to notify commanders about a pregnancy.

As for protecting vulnerable health providers from potential legal risk, military officials said the department wants to reassure doctors that they have Pentagon support, which includes programs to reimburse fees associated with legal defenses and help physicians get licensed in other states.

“Department of Defense health care providers should not be held personally liable for performing their official duties and should not have to face criminal or civil liability or risk losing their license for doing so,” Austin wrote.

Military officials, however, did not say how vulnerable providers might be protected in any number of possible scenarios, mostly because the entirety of the policies is still being worked out. Mainly, they said, Thursday’s announcement serves to reassure providers that they will have Pentagon support.

To better ensure access, the department said reproductive health care will be available to service members regardless of where they are stationed, and the department will pay to varying extents for covered and non-covered abortions. Covered abortions are those in the military that are done in cases of rape, incest and to protect the life of the mother. Officials said service members would still be responsible for some of the expenses from non-covered abortions, but they did not specify which costs.

Military officials said the department recorded 91 covered abortions between 2016 and 2021.

The Biden administration has been active in seeking to protect reproductive health care since the Supreme Court overturned Roe, but the president’s reach is largely limited to federal workers. Biden and some congressional Democrats have emphasized the high court’s landmark reversal as one of the chief issues of the midterm elections, which will be held in less than three weeks. The outcome could expand Democrats’ control of both chambers of Congress or hand them over to Republicans — some of whom have already hinted at a plan for a nationwide abortion ban if they win control.

Despite the court’s ruling and various moves by GOP-led states to bar abortion outright — in some cases with no exceptions — polling has long shown that most Americans support at least some form of legalized abortion.

According to the most recent polling by the Pew Research Center, 61% of respondents said they favor legal abortion in all or most cases. Just 37% said the practice should be illegal in all or most cases. Even when separated by religion, most respondents said they favored some form of legalized abortion. For example, 56% of Catholic respondents said the practice should be legal in all or most cases, the Pew research found.

This week, Biden said he plans to legalize abortion nationwide in federal law if Democrats can expand their majority in the Senate. In July, the Democratic-held House passed a proposal — the Women’s Health Protection Act — to make abortion legal into federal law. The Senate, where Democrats have a slim majority, has yet to act on the bill.

“Elect more Democratic senators to the United States Senate and more Democrats to keep control of the House of Representatives,” Biden said Tuesday at the Democratic National Committee’s “Restore Roe” event, where he reminded voters that some Republicans have pledged to cut access to reproductive health if they take control of both chambers.

The Supreme Court ruling and the Pentagon’s announcement Thursday are relevant for the more than 200,000 women who are part of the active-duty U.S. military, some of whom have said they are very concerned about losing reproductive rights.

According to a recent study by the Rand Corp., the reversal of Roe v. Wade could persuade thousands of military women to leave the armed forces.

“The recent Supreme Court ruling … will limit service women’s and DoD civilian women’s access to the full scope of reproductive health care and will have a direct effect on the health of these critical populations,” according to the study published in September.

“There are roughly 1.16 million active-duty service members, about 201,000 of whom are women stationed in the continental United States,” the study states. “Roughly 450,000 active-duty service members live in a state that meets the inclusion criteria outlined previously (i.e., existing full or partial bans, soon-to-be in-place bans, court-blocked bans and gestational limits up to 18 weeks), and of those service members, approximately 80,000 are women.

“This means that 40% of active-duty service women in the continental United States will have no or severely restricted access to abortion services where they are stationed.”

Austin wrote in his memo that the recent Supreme Court ruling has impacted access to reproductive health care and could affect readiness, recruiting and retention for the force.

The fourth main pillar of Thursday’s update, increasing awareness, will see the Defense Department establish multiple efforts to inform women and men in the military about what services are available and how to obtain them. That includes a comprehensive contraception education campaign, updating military websites to provide simple answers and listing points of contact to help service members find the answers that they need.

That also means expanded walk-in contraception services at all health care facilities and eliminated health insurance co-pays for medical contraceptive services, including intrauterine devices.

“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.”

The department expects to issue the final policy changes before the end of the year.

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Doug G. Ware covers the Department of Defense at the Pentagon. He has many years of experience in journalism, digital media and broadcasting and holds a degree from the University of Utah. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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