US military says it will grant service members up to 3 weeks leave to travel for abortions

ByHaley Britzky and Oren Liebermann, CNN, CNNWire
Friday, February 17, 2023
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WASHINGTON -- The US Defense Department released a series of new policies on Thursday to provide additional support to service members and dependents who must travel out of state to receive an abortion, including allowing up to three weeks of administrative leave.

"This policy reflects our continued commitment to taking care of our people and ensuring that the entire force remains ready and resilient," Gilbert Cisneros, the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said in a memo released Thursday.

The military has been adjusting to the Supreme Court's ruling on Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization in June which overturned protections previously established in the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, CNN reported. The new ruling set off what are called "trigger laws" in roughly a dozen states, which were designed to go into effect almost immediately after Roe v. Wade was overturned.

Many of the most restrictive states -- including Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana -- are home to major military installations. There were immediately concerns over how service members and their families, who often do not get to choose which installation and in which state they get to live, would navigate the changes.

Indeed, a Pentagon press release on Thursday accompanying the new policies says that service members and their families "do not control where they are stationed, and due to the nature of military service, are frequently required to travel or move to meet operational requirements."

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"The efforts taken by the Department today will not only ensure that service members and their families are afforded time and flexibility to make private health care decisions, but will also ensure service members are able to access non-covered reproductive health care regardless of where they are stationed," the release said.

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.

The 21 days of administrative absence also applies to other non-covered reproductive health care, including in vitro fertilization (IVF) and intrauterine insemination (IUI).

The latest policies follow the release of an overarching framework on measures to protect service members' rights and access to abortion last fall, though officials said they were still working through the details. The measures made an effort to provide travel and transportation allowances for service members or military family members who are traveling out of state to receive an abortion, and protect military medical providers from civil or criminal lawsuits if they perform a protected abortion.

"Our greatest strength is our people," Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a memo in October. "There is no higher priority than taking care of our people, and ensuring their health and well-being."

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Cisneros said in a memo last year that the Dobbs ruling would have "significant implications" for service members and their families, "as well as the readiness of the force." Cisneros also emphasized in his memo that the Supreme Court's ruling "does not prohibit the Department from continuing to perform covered abortions, consistent with federal law."

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.

Covered abortions include those performed as a result of rape or incest, and when the mother's life is at risk, according to the Hyde Amendment, a 1976-era ruling that defined when federal funding could be used for abortions.

The new policy grants service members administrative absence in order to accompany a dual-military spouse or dependent to access a non-covered abortion. It also emphasizes that commanders "are expected to display objectivity, compassion, and discretion when addressing all health care matters, including reproductive health care matters," and act "promptly and with appropriate discretion."

In addition, the new policy forbids commanders from requiring subordinates to comply with additional requirements, such as religious consultations, medical testing, or other forms of counseling.

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