Duckworth, Durbin Join Shaheen, Senate Colleagues in Letter to Pentagon Underscoring National Security Imperative to Provide Abortion Leave for Servicemembers
The letter underscores the serious national security imperatives tied to providing U.S. servicemembers access to protected leave for abortion and reproductive healthcare services
[WASHINGTON, DC] – Combat Veteran and U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), member of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee and U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) joined U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and their Senate colleagues this week in sending a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. In their letter, the lawmakers highlighted key U.S. national security priorities tied to providing access to non-covered reproductive healthcare for servicemembers. In the wake of the Supreme Court reversing Roe v. Wade, health of the force, military readiness and recruitment and retention for all U.S. military branches are at risk.
“Women servicemembers, who make up approximately 17% of active-duty military, have no say in where they are stationed, even if their duty station is in a state that severely limits or restricts access to abortion or other critical reproductive health services,” wrote the Senators. “It is unacceptable that servicemembers or their dependents should face limited or no access to abortion care simply because of where they are stationed as part of their service to the United States.”
The letter addresses national security implications of the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade, which in addition to disenfranchising U.S. servicemembers’ control over their own bodies, risks serious repercussions for the U.S. military, including health of the force, military readiness and recruitment and retention. The Senators also explain the national security implications for restricting servicemembers’ reproductive freedom and underscore the dangerous message sent to women in uniform—current and future—that they cannot be trusted to make their own decisions about their health and families.
“Abortion restrictions and bans only force servicemembers to travel farther to states that have not restricted abortion, further compromising both the financial security of the service members and military readiness,” the Senators continued. “Our servicemembers should not be forced to needlessly risk their personal health and safety for routine healthcare simply because they pledged to protect and defend our nation.”
The Senators conclude the letter by reaffirming Senate Democrats’ commitment to ensure the full implementation of the Department’s reproductive policies and that efforts will continue in the Senate to fiercely defend servicemembers and their families’ health and freedoms. The letter also reaffirms commitment among Democratic Senators to support the Department of Defense's (DOD) reproductive healthcare policies.
Joining Duckworth, Durbin and Shaheen are U.S. Senators Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), John Hickenlooper (D-CO), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Catherine Cortez-Masto (D-NV), Mark Kelly (D-AZ), Tina Smith (D-MN), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Alex Padilla (D-CA), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Jacky Rosen (D-NV), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Patty Murray (D-WA), Peter Welch (D-VT), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Gary Peters (D-MI), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Tom Carper (D-DE), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Ed Markey (D-MA), Angus King (I-ME), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Chris Coons (D-DE), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Mark Warner (D-VA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Martin Heinrich (D-NM).
The letter can be read in full here and below.
Dear Secretary Austin:
We write to express our strong support for the personnel policies the Department of Defense issued on February 16, 2023, consistent with your October 20, 2022 directive, to ensure service members and their families can access necessary reproductive health care, including access to abortion and fertility care. Currently, 13 states have a total ban on abortion and other states are moving to severely limit access to abortion services. Given the restricted access to abortion that service members face following the Supreme Court’s June 2022 ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, we are encouraged by your new travel and transportation, and administrative leave policies in support of reproductive health care, including abortion, and we urge you to consider the availability of such care when considering the unique vulnerabilities service members face in deployments, military recruitment and retention efforts and U.S. military basing decisions. In addition, with a pending federal lawsuit threatening the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of mifepristone, one of two medications most commonly used in medication abortion, it is imperative that the Department of Defense continue to take action to protect the rights of service members and their families to access abortion care.
Following the Dobbs decision, the RAND Corporation estimates that 40% of active-duty women serving in the continental United States face limited or no access to abortion services where they are stationed. When service members are assigned to duty stations either domestically or overseas, their placement is determined by the needs of the U.S. military. Women service members, who make up approximately 17% of active-duty military, have no say in where they are stationed, even if their duty station is in a state that severely limits or restricts access to abortion or other critical reproductive health services. It is unacceptable that service members or their dependents should face limited or no access to abortion care simply because of where they are stationed as part of their service to the United States.
State laws restricting or prohibiting our service members from accessing reproductive care send a message that the United States does not trust those who serve in uniform – whom we trust to protect our country – to make their own decisions about their health care and families. These laws also jeopardize the health and overall readiness of our military. Prior to the Dobbs decision, most service members sought abortion care through civilian clinics, at their own expense, because abortion care was prohibited under TRICARE and at military treatment facilities except in certain circumstances. In the aftermath of decision, state laws further restricting the right of service members to make their own decisions about their health care will not stop service members from needing or seeking care. Abortion restrictions and bans only force service members to travel farther to states that have not restricted abortion, further compromising both the financial security of the service members and military readiness. Our service members should not be forced to needlessly risk their personal health and safety for routine health care simply because they pledged to protect and defend our nation.
The Dobbs decision also exacerbates our military’s recruitment and retention efforts. Many join the military in pursuit of economic security and a successful career, and with the promise that the Department of Defense will protect their health and wellbeing. However, last year, the Department warned that the U.S. military is facing the most significant recruiting challenges in more than 50 years. The recruitment challenges we face align with our inability to retain those already serving in uniform, depriving us of the next generation of uniformed senior leaders and leaving us short of the personnel we need to meet the national security needs of our nation. Recruiting and retention will only be made more challenging as states continue to ban or restrict access to abortion services, sending a message that certain service members’ autonomy and ability to get the health care they need does not matter, and putting into place additional barriers and undue burdens for service members and their families.
The Department of Defense should also consider the availability and accessibility of health care, including abortion and reproductive care, when making basing decisions, and swiftly develop a framework for major basing and personnel decisions that accounts for state and local laws restricting access to reproductive health care. Just as basing criteria weigh a variety of conditions such as local educational resources and cost of living, so should the Department take into consideration the consequence of locating new installations and missions in states that would adversely impact the reproductive rights of those required to work there. The Department must also consider the numerous barriers that service members still face in accessing abortion care under its new policy, including stigma and discrimination, out-of-pocket costs, delayed wait times, and the volatility of abortion access from state to state as legislatures move to enact abortion bans.
We are committed to ensuring the full implementation of the Department’s reproductive care policies and will continue to advocate for the freedoms of our service members and their families, and their right to make their own decisions about their health care. We appreciate your continued attention to these matters and thank you for defending the rights of those who serve our nation.
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