Troops' Abortion Access Will Continue Despite State Bans, Pentagon Vows

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Protesters fill the street in front of the Supreme Court.
Protesters fill the street in front of the Supreme Court after the court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in Washington, June 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

The Pentagon insisted Tuesday there would be no interruption in access to abortion services for troops despite the Supreme Court's repeal of Roe v. Wade and snap moves by more than two dozen states to ban or restrict the procedure.

The court's decision does not prohibit the military from providing care for covered abortions -- pregancies that risk the life of the woman or are the result of rape or incest -- as allowed under federal law, Gil Cisneros, the under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, wrote in a memo to Defense Department leaders.

But Cisneros also acknowledged troops who seek or receive abortions in states that ban the procedure could face a legal fight as laws in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and elsewhere were on a collision course with the federal rules and the Justice Department. Troops are also going to be forced to rely heavily on leave policies to travel to states where abortion is legal, according to Cisneros' memo.

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"We will work with the Department of Justice to ensure access to [legal] counsel for such civilian employees and service members if needed and as appropriate," Cisneros wrote in the memo published by the Pentagon.

Overall, the Friday decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, which overturned the 1973 high-court ruling that women have a constitutional right to abortions, creates "complicated" issues for the military and was still being evaluated on Tuesday, he wrote.

The looming legal fights were already beginning to unfold across the U.S. on Tuesday as a ban in Louisiana was temporarily blocked by a judge and opponents of the court's decision mounted challenges elsewhere.

The extent that states would seek to police and punish those seeking or providing abortions was still unclear just days after the landmark court decision, which erased a five-decade legal precedent. That could put service members who use abortion services under federal law in the legal crosshairs of states trying to impose bans.

At least 13 states that are home to about 240,000 service members had "trigger" laws that immediately banned elective abortions or will ban the procedures within weeks. While the individual laws vary, many of the states provide exceptions when the woman's life is at risk or the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest.

Texas, for example, will now ban most abortions from the moment of conception. The law affects the state's 72,000 soldiers at bases such as Fort Hood and Fort Bliss, and about 35,000 airmen and Guardians at Joint Base San Antonio and other bases.

Troops who seek abortions -- procedures that are unplanned and often already laden with stress and emotional turmoil -- may now be forced to travel out of state to receive the care. The Pentagon is already signaling it will rely on that approach to continue to provide abortion access.

"The Supreme Court's decision also does not affect the department's leave policies," Cisneros wrote.

Government-funded official travel can be used for abortions that are considered covered because they endanger the woman's life or are due to rape or incest, but service members will be required to pay out of their own pockets for the travel needed for other abortions, according to Cisneros.

Tricare health insurance only pays for the covered abortions and also can provide mental health counseling. It does not cover any services, including referrals and counseling, for elective abortions.

But that solution also leaves in question whether commanders in anti-abortion states will approve the leave necessary to make a trip to states where it remains legal.

The Defense Department is barred by federal law from performing abortions, but the health care can be covered by Tricare insurance and performed at civilian facilities.

-- Travis Tritten can be reached at travis.tritten@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Tritten.

Related: Troops at Some Bases to See Abortion Access Sharply Curtailed or Eliminated After the Fall of Roe

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