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A new Pentagon policy helps troops who travel to receive abortions. Republicans want to block it.

Air Force Major Sharon Arana testified before a U.S. House committee in July 2022 about the challenged she faced as she sought an abortion in 2009 when she was stationed in Alabama. She is concerned that experiences like hers are becoming more common since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade.
Air Force Major Sharon Arana testified before a U.S. House committee in July 2022 about the challenged she faced as she sought an abortion in 2009 when she was stationed in Alabama. She is concerned that experiences like hers are becoming more common since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade.

The Pentagon policy reimburses service members for travel expenses and offers up to 21 days of leave for abortions and fertility treatment.

Even before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade, service members struggled to get abortions. Navigating different state laws, trying to obtain leave, and figuring out travel arrangements wasn’t easy.

“Having it be so difficult, the barriers I had to overcome and jump over, it reset where I thought I fit into the military,” said Air Force Major Sharon Arana.

In 2009, Arana became pregnant while she was in officer training in Alabama. She took a test in a gas station bathroom instead of going to the base clinic, fearing that her command would learn about the pregnancy.

Arana and her boyfriend ultimately decided to seek a medication abortion, but couldn’t get an appointment in Alabama because there were so few clinics. When they drove to Georgia, they faced another problem. The couple shelled out several hundred dollars for a hotel, medical imaging and tests, only to be told that Georgia state law required a cooling off period.

“They said, ‘Well, there's a three day waiting period,’” Arana said. “I'm like, ‘I don't have three days, I have to go back to training.’ So we drove back the next day, and then I graduated that week.”

Arana later underwent an abortion in New York during scheduled leave to visit her family. But had that time off not already been in place, she said she doesn’t know what she would have done.

Those experiences are top of mind for her now that abortion is no longer protected under federal law. Arana has been telling her story and even testified before Congress, concerned that experiences like hers will become more common.

“This is directly affecting our airmen now and our families,” she said. “None of us asked for any of this. We don't get to choose where we live. We don't get to choose where we're stationed.... We should be protected from a lot of this.”

Arana also helped shape a new Defense Department policy that allows service members to take up to three weeks of administrative leave for abortion or fertility treatment and reimburses them for travel expenses. It gives service members more time — 20 weeks — before they have to notify commanders about their pregnancies. It also restricts health care providers from telling commanders.

“The Department has heard from service members and their families about the complexity and uncertainty they now face in accessing reproductive health care,” said Department of Defense spokesperson Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman.

“The efforts taken by the Department on reproductive health care not only ensures that service members and their families are afforded time and flexibility to make personal and private health care decisions, but also ensures service members are able to access care regardless of where they are stationed. These policies help address the fact 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.”

According to some advocates, the military has taken an important step to meet troops' health needs.

“The military hasn't really been a leader on issues of reproductive access in the past, and to see them taking seriously the needs of service members is a refreshing change, especially in the context of gender,” said Claire McKinney, a College of William and Mary professor who studies gender, politics and reproduction.

To take leave, service members only need to identify their request to their commander as a “non-covered reproductive health care need." But to get reimbursed for travel, they have to get their pregnancy confirmed through a medical provider on or off base and give details about the clinic where they sought the abortion or fertility treatment.

Lorry Fenner, director of government relations for the Service Women’s Action Network, said the policy does a good job of balancing troops’ privacy with mission requirements — but that implementing it won’t be easy.

“There will be problems," Fenner said. "There are commanders who will not get the word or who will disagree and do everything they can to short circuit this. Because they believe that their mission is the number one priority. But the Secretary reminds them that the health and care of their members is what gets that mission done.”

Meanwhile some Republicans are trying to block the policy.

With the Hyde Amendment and other provisions, Congress already bans the federal government from paying for abortions except in cases of rape, incest, or where the mother’s life is in danger. Republican Senator Tommy Tuberville of Alabama argues that paying for travel to an abortion provider violates the spirit of Hyde.

“Secretary Austin’s new abortion policy is immoral and arguably illegal. If he wants to change the law, he needs to go through Congress,” he said in remarks on the Senate floor.

Republican members of Congress say they plan to try to make the policy explicitly illegal. They’ve proposed legislation that would ban the Department of Defense from funding service members’ travel to obtain abortions.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.

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Carson covers military and veteans issues for KSTX, the Texas Public Radio station in San Antonio.