Republican senators challenging rationale behind new Pentagon abortion policies
Stars and Stripes March 2, 2023
WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans are demanding answers from the Defense Department about new policies that support service members seeking abortions, describing them as a “purely political action” taken without consulting Congress.
The Defense Department issued the policies last month in response to the Supreme Court’s controversial decision last year to abolish the constitutional right to an abortion. The new policies, which will go into effect later this month, guarantee privacy protections for pregnancies, provide administrative leave for abortion care and reimbursement for service members who need to travel to obtain the procedure.
Republican members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, led by Roger Wicker of Mississippi, have described the rules as “heavy-handed, far-left social policy.” In a letter sent to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Wednesday, the 12 lawmakers challenged assertions by Pentagon officials that abortion access had an impact on readiness, recruitment and retention.
“The Department of Defense provided no support for this specious claim,” the senators wrote. “The Department of Defense’s actions tell our service members pregnancy is a liability to the force. They also imply our military’s success hinges on access to abortion. The former is a mistake; the latter is false.”
Gil Cisneros, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, told lawmakers last year that the Defense Department was concerned women would “think twice” before joining the military due to the Supreme Court’s decision and said women provide diversity that is “essential for the survivability of our force.”
Republican senators have rebuked that argument and asked Austin to provide data on the number of women who refused to be stationed in Germany, South Korea or any other country due to local abortion laws. South Korea decriminalized abortion in 2021 and the procedure is illegal but not punishable in Germany during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and more advanced pregnancies that threaten the life of the mother.
“Until the recently issued Department of Defense memos, we never heard concerns from service members or from the department about sending women to a location that ‘severely restricts their options for reproductive health care’ or that any woman felt ‘deterred from joining the military for fear of being stationed at an installation or base in such’ countries,” the senators wrote.
Several female service members testified before a House Armed Services Committee subpanel last summer about the obstacles that they faced to get an abortion.
“I’m especially concerned for these junior enlisted members like I was, on a tight financial budget, who are now stationed in a state that has banned abortion,” Air Force Maj. Theresa Mozzillo said at the time. “Many will now need to travel hundreds of miles away. … Will they be able to afford the transportation and hotel costs along with the cost of an abortion? Will they need to ask their direct supervisors for leave? Will this knowledge compromise their careers or will their privacy be respected or will their situation become work center gossip? But most importantly, what would their future look like if they didn't have an abortion?”
Former Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said her office was inundated with calls from current and former service members who are “anxious and despondent” about being stationed in states that have outlawed abortion. Many of the most restrictive states, including Oklahoma, Louisiana and Texas, host major military installations.
Republican senators criticized the Pentagon’s new policies as a “blatant attempt” to circumvent federal laws that distance the military from abortion-related decisions. They said the policies violate “the spirit” of a law that prohibits the Defense Department from using funds or facilities to perform an abortion and “brazenly depart” from the department’s historic interpretation of travel regulations.
“They say nothing about funding travel to receive an elective abortion,” the senators wrote. “Taking such significant liberties with federal law is a grave matter.”
Most troublingly, the senators wrote, the policies will force military commanders who oppose abortion to choose between their beliefs and their command.
“The recent actions of the Department of Defense on this issue are an affront to many devoted and loyal patriots serving in our armed forces,” senators said.
They are asking Austin to rescind the new policies immediately and respond to their letter by March 10, eight days before the new rules will take effect.