Ernst seeks to block abortion access for military service members

U.S. Senator Joni Ernst is the lead sponsor of a bill that would block a new Pentagon policy designed to expand service members’ access to abortion care.

The Defense Department has long covered abortions if the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest, or if continuing the pregnancy would endanger the mother’s life. The policy announced last month affects “non-covered” reproductive care, including abortion and various fertility treatments. Haley Britzky and Oren Liebermann reported for CNN on February 16,

The policy, which will go into effect by March 18, states that service members will have access to “lawfully available non-covered reproductive health care regardless of where they are stationed,” and that they will be able to request an administrative absence without being charged leave to access that care. Service members can be granted an administrative absence of up to three weeks.

It also “standardizes and extends” the timeline in which service members have to inform their commanders of a pregnancy to 20 weeks. […]

Thursday’s release says that travel and transportation allowances can be authorized for service members and their families who have to travel for non-covered reproductive health care.

In October 2022, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered the department to take steps to preserve “access to reproductive health care,” addressing concerns about service members stationed in states that have banned most or all abortions (such as Texas and Oklahoma). Ernst’s bill would nullify that memorandum and prohibit the Defense Department from using any appropriated funds to implement it.

The bill states, “The access of a member of the armed forces or a dependent of such a member to an abortion or abortion-related services being limited because of the duty location of the member does not constitute an unusual, extraordinary, hardship, or emergency circumstance,” unless the “the life of the mother would be endangered if the fetus were carried to term or the pregnancy is the result of an act of rape or incest.”

The Daily Signal, a conservative website operated by the Heritage Foundation, was first to report on Ernst’s initiative. That article by Rob Bluey asserted, “A study from Rand Corporation estimated the Pentagon’s new policies could increase the annual number of abortions from 20 to 4,100 among U.S. servicewomen.” Bluey misstated the findings.

In fact, the Rand survey “indicated that as many as 4,100 active-duty U.S. service women seek abortion care each year,” according to this summary on the Rand blog. The new policy may increase the number of service members who are able to use leave, travel, and transportation allowances to cover costs associated with an abortion, but there is no evidence it will increase the number of abortions sought by service members.

Ernst declared in a March 15 news release, “The Pentagon should not be mobilized against the unborn. The Department of Defense exists to defend life, not destroy it.” She claimed the policy is “unlawful” as well as “immoral,” since the Hyde Amendment (enacted in 1976) “protects taxpayers from being forced to fund abortions.”

However, the new policy does not allocate taxpayer dollars for abortions. Most abortions will remain “non-covered” through military health benefits. The Hyde Amendment does not explicitly preclude federal funds from being used for other expenses incurred by those who need to travel to obtain reproductive care. A Congressional Research Service report from July 2022 described it as an “open question” whether the Hyde Amendment’s “restrictions apply beyond the payment or coverage of abortion services to, for instance, activities like travel that may facilitate abortion access.”

Ernst’s bill has no realistic chance of advancing in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Its 36 original co-sponsors do not include Iowa’s senior Senator Chuck Grassley. During last year’s re-election campaign, he said states should regulate abortion and promised to oppose efforts to ban abortion nationwide.

Top image: Joni Ernst speaks at a March 7, 2023 news conference featuring Senate Republican leaders. Screenshot from C-SPAN video.

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