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Pentagon pressed to defend abortions

The Pentagon should be proactive in securing easy access to abortion services, activists and lawmakers say, demanding that the military ensure no soldier who wants to terminate a pregnancy is blocked by state legislation.

The issue arose after a draft US Supreme Court ruling was leaked to the media earlier this month, indicating that the Roe v. Wade precedent recognizing abortion as a constitutional right may be overturned this summer. Although the US Army and Air Force have taken steps to make it easier for troops to get time off for abortions, proponents have argued that the Pentagon must take action to ensure that all branches of the military protect access to such services.

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“This is not an Air Force issue, an Army issue, a Marine Corps issue, this is a national security, Department of Defense, personnel-readiness issue,” California law professor Rachel VanLandingham told The Hill in an article posted on Sunday.

“So therefore, this policy should come from the Department of Defense itself.” VanLandingham, a former Air Force lieutenant, added, “There’s no room for disparities amongst the services.”

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The high court’s ruling would leave states to decide abortion rights in their jurisdictions. More than two dozen states are expected to ban or reduce access to abortion, and most of the US military’s domestic bases are in those locales.

Eight US senators sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin earlier this month, warning that the abortion rights of troops and civilian personnel may soon depend on the location of their duty station. The decision also could hinder the military’s recruitment and retention efforts, as women might choose not to enlist or re-enlist on concern they could be forced to go through with an unwanted pregnancy, the lawmakers said.

“With our country facing the likely rollback of personal rights, what are you and your staff doing in preparation to protect the health and welfare of those under your command?” the senators asked. “What steps will you take to assist servicemembers in need of an abortion?” The Pentagon should at least ensure that troops can take leave to travel out of state to get abortions.

Even before the recent controversy, the Army and Air Force tweaked their leave policies by eliminating the need for commander pre-approval to get time off for terminating pregnancies, “given the time-sensitive nature of the procedure.” The Army is prepared to go further.

Testifying in a May 12 congressional hearing, Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston was pressed on whether preparations are being made to protect abortion access in a post-Roe America. “The answer is yes, we are drafting policies to ensure we take care of our soldiers in an appropriate way,” he said.

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And like the pro-abortion senators, the Army’s top enlisted soldier said the high court’s abortion ruling could undermine recruiting. “We do not want to disadvantage anyone in our force – men, women – or alienate anyone that is eligible to serve in the military,” Grinston said. “We’ll continue to recruit as best we can with the policies that we have.”

Federal law forbidding use of tax dollars for most abortions precludes military doctors from providing such services. That means troops have to travel off base for abortions, and with the overturning of Roe v. Wade, many would have to go to an abortionist in another state.

“Women in the military already have a higher rate of unintended pregnancies than civilian women,” Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Florida) said at the May 12 hearing. “For those female soldiers in states with restrictive abortion laws, their options for safe abortions may be completely erased if Roe v. Wade is overturned.”

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