Dear Secretary Austin and Secretary Mayorkas,
We write to urge you to extend and enhance policies to improve servicemembers' access to abortion care and other reproductive health services, strengthen privacy protections, and provide servicemembers with the resources they need to obtain care. After decades of attacks on abortion rights from anti-abortion lawmakers, a leaked Supreme Court draft opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization has revealed the Court is poised to eliminate the constitutional right to abortion. We are gravely concerned about servicemembers' reproductive privacy and health care rights, especially given the unique challenges that servicemembers face, including for those who are stationed in states that are poised to ban or restrict abortion and potentially other reproductive care if the Court dismantles Roe v. Wade.
Already, we are deeply alarmed by the barriers that servicemembers currently face when seeking abortion care - and this will only worsen as dozens of states prepare to ban abortion as the Supreme Court is poised to overturn the constitutional right to abortion. Reproductive health care, including abortion, is a time-sensitive procedure. However, servicemembers face a myriad of challenges when seeking abortion care, from needing to request approval from their commander to take leave, to traveling long distances when they are stationed in places where abortion is unavailable, to lacking the financial means to travel off base for the care, including renting a car, purchasing a plane ticket, or paying hotel costs. Further, upon return to duty, servicemembers may face retaliation for having an abortion if the information is disclosed to their commander or other servicemembers. These hurdles are in addition to servicemembers needing to navigate both federal bans on abortion care and healthcare coverage when seeking an abortion.
We are pleased the Secretaries of the Army and Air Force acted to improve servicemembers' access to abortion care by establishing policies that enable servicemembers to request leave for abortion care without requiring pre-approval from their commander or disclosing the nature of the health care service. Prior to this policy change, soldiers, airmen, and guardians could be required to disclose to their commander that they were requesting leave for abortion care. Under such a policy, it is possible that a commander refuses to grant the leave, or later retaliates against the servicemember because of personal objections to abortion. These changes are a step in the right direction and, at minimum, must be extended to all military services, as we firmly believe that access to care for our servicemembers and military families should not be determined by the personal beliefs of others.
The Department of Defense (DoD) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) must use all means to protect the health and well-being of those who serve and their loved ones. As such, we ask that DoD and DHS implement the following changes: first, remove barriers for taking leave by extending the Army and Air Force's current leave policies for abortion care across all the military services; second, strengthen servicemember privacy and protect against retaliation; and third, provide direct financial support for servicemembers requiring travel for abortion care.
DoD and DHS must protect servicemembers from potential consequences for the servicemember after they have an abortion - including a hostile work environment if others in their ranks discover that they sought or obtained an abortion. You should be clear that such retaliation is forbidden.
Finally, in a post-Roe world, servicemembers stationed in states where abortion is banned or severely restricted will need additional leave, resources, and financial support to facilitate travel to states where abortion is accessible. Many servicemembers have limited to no access to a car - increasing the costs of accessing an abortion. The consequence of delays and challenges in accessing care across multiple states could mean that the servicemember is forced to carry a pregnancy against their will. The DoD and DHS must therefore ensure that all military services provide sufficient leave that allows servicemembers to navigate the multiple hurdles and delays while also ensuring that the servicemember has the means (including by offering subsidies and reimbursement for the costs of travel) to travel off base and to a different state, if necessary, to obtain medical care.
Everyone, including members of our military and their families, should be free to make decisions about their futures and families, including the decision to have an abortion. Moreover, limiting access to these services will negatively impact the morale, retention, overall health of the joint force, and deeply harm the overall readiness of the Armed Forces. The DoD and DHS must immediately strengthen its policies across the board to support a servicemember seeking an abortion both before and after they seek such care. You must act urgently to update the policies of our Armed Forces - and commit to a future where our servicemembers and their loved ones have the freedom to control their own bodies, safely care for their families, and live with dignity.
Thank you for your leadership, partnership, and continued service to our nation -- we look forward to working with you on these efforts.