Troops Don't Have to Disclose They're Getting an Abortion to Use New Leave, Pentagon Says

U.S. Air Force medical technician performs an ultrasound on a patient.
U.S. Air Force medical technician performs an ultrasound on a patient, Sept. 14, 2017. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Xiomara M. Martinez)

Service members who want to use administrative leave or receive a travel allowance to get an abortion or fertility treatment will not have to disclose the specific reason they're using the benefits, the Pentagon confirmed to on Friday.

Service members will have to write in documentation that their request is for a "non-covered reproductive health care need," Pentagon spokesperson Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman told The leave, an administrative absence, does not count against regular leave allowances.

To have travel and transportation costs paid for, service members will have to submit a note from a Defense Department health care provider or a licensed non-Defense Department health care provider to the travel-approving official that says the travel is needed for non-covered reproductive health care, Schwegman added.

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Under policies announced last week, service members can get up to 21 days of administrative leave and transportation costs paid for in order to get an abortion that may only be available far from where they are stationed.

By law, the Pentagon can conduct or cover an abortion only if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest or the life of mother is at risk by carrying the pregnancy.

The leave and allowances are also available to service members who need fertility treatments that are not covered by military health care, such as in vitro fertilization.

The policies were a response to last year's Supreme Court ruling that allowed states to ban abortion. Since the ruling, more than a dozen states, many home to some of the biggest military bases in the country, have outlawed or severely restricted abortion. The bans raised concerns from abortion rights supporters that female troops, who do not get to choose where they are stationed, could lose access to reproductive health care.

But abortion rights advocates have also raised concerns that documentation or data indicating someone sought an abortion could be used by law enforcement or in prosecutions in states where the procedure is illegal. Oklahoma and Texas have enacted "bounty laws" that are designed to target those seeking abortions even potentially out of state, creating a situation where any paper trail could leave service members vulnerable.

Asked about those privacy concerns in October when the Pentagon first said it would provide administrative leave and travel stipends for abortions, defense officials suggested service members may be able to be vague about their circumstances but deferred a definitive answer until the policies were finalized.

If service members don't feel comfortable disclosing any information, they still have the option of taking personal leave and paying for expenses themselves, Schwegman said.

"The new reproductive health care policy balances the responsibility of commanders to meet operational requirements while also protecting the privacy, health and safety of those service members in their care," Schwegman said in an email.

In requiring troops to say they are getting non-covered reproductive health care without specifying abortion, the Pentagon is attempting to balance privacy considerations with the department's legal requirements and ensuring commanders grant the benefits, Schwegman said.

For example, with the travel allowance, officials need the doctor's note so there's documentation for how the funding was used in an audit, she said.

With the administrative absence, Schwegman argued documenting that the leave is for reproductive care could protect service members from commanders denying it because the commanders would in turn have to document why they are turning down the request. The policy stipulates the leave "should be granted to the greatest extent practicable, unless, in the commanding officer's judgment, the service member's absence would impair proper execution of the military mission," according to one of the memos released last week.

The military services are expected to implement the policies in March, according to those memos.

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

Related: Military to Cover Travel Costs and Offer Leave for Troops Seeking Abortions, Fertility Treatment

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