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The Pentagon will pay for service members to travel for abortions

Several of the military's largest U.S. bases are located in states where abortion is now banned, including Fort Hood in Texas.
Tony Gutierrez
/
AP
Several of the military's largest U.S. bases are located in states where abortion is now banned, including Fort Hood in Texas.

The Pentagon will pay for service members to travel for abortion care, a move that comes as many states have rolled back access to the procedure since the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

In a memo dated Thursday, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin directed the department to adopt a suite of reproductive health care policies in response to the Supreme Court's June decision to end the federal right to abortion.

"The practical effect of the recent changes is that service members may be forced to travel greater distances, take more time off work and pay more out-of-pocket expenses to access reproductive health care, all of which have readiness, recruiting and retention implications for America's armed forces," said Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, a Pentagon spokesperson, speaking to reporters Thursday.

Since June, all or most abortions have become illegal in 13 states. Bans in a handful of other states are currently on temporary hold by court order.

A federal policy known as the Hyde Amendment already prohibits the use of federal funds for abortion except in cases of rape, incest or when the mother's life is at risk. (According to a report to Congress earlier this year, 91 abortions were performed at U.S. military hospitals between 2016 and 2021.)

As a result, most service members seeking an abortion must travel to a civilian facility to do so.

But several of the military's largest U.S. bases are located in states where abortion is now banned, including Fort Campbell, which straddles the Kentucky-Tennessee border, and Fort Hood in Texas, both of which are home to tens of thousands of service members.

Austin's memo seeks to address concerns about abortion access and reproductive privacy in other ways. Other policy changes include the extension of the time by which a service member must report a pregnancy to 20 weeks. The department's health providers are directed to not disclose reproductive health information to commanders except in specific scenarios, including risk of harm to mission.

The memo also takes steps on behalf of health care providers who work for the Department of Defense. The Pentagon will reimburse fees for providers who seek to become licensed in other states in order to perform official duties, along with providing legal and other support to providers who face civil or criminal penalties for "appropriately performing their official duties."

The memo directs all the actions to be completed as soon as possible and no later than the end of 2022.

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Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.