Starting March 18, the Pentagon will offer service members three weeks of administrative leave for abortion-related travel—either to obtain abortion care themselves or to accompany partners or dependent family members. “The efforts taken by the Department will not only ensure that service members and their families are afforded time and flexibility to make private health care decisions, but will also ensure service members are able to access non-covered reproductive health care regardless of where they are stationed,” the Department of Defense announced in a press release Thursday.
As the DoD notes, states where abortion is most severely restricted post-Roe v. Wade happen to contain some of the largest military installations in the nation. Among these states are Texas and Oklahoma, where abortion is almost totally banned. The department notes that service members “do not control where they are stationed, and due to the nature of military service, are frequently required to travel or move to meet operational requirements.”
“Non-covered reproductive health care” includes abortion services for pregnancies that weren’t caused by rape or incest and don’t threaten the life of the pregnant person. Per the Hyde Amendment, a 1976 budget rider, federal funding is prohibited from covering the costs of abortion unless it’s sought under those circumstances. Nonetheless, the DoD’s announcement specified that service members forced to travel out of state for non-covered abortion services can still receive travel and transportation allowances.
The updated policy also notably includes leave for IVF and other fertility treatments—an especially important step as IVF becomes increasingly contentious post-Roe. Numerous states have already imposed abortion bans that include “life begins at conception” language as well as protections for embryos—some IVF providers, experts, and patients fear this language could jeopardize the fertility treatment, which involves routine disposal of embryos. In June, the Wall Street Journal reported that some patients undergoing IVF in states where abortion would soon be banned had asked their providers to move their embryos to states where abortion is protected. All of this could prompt more out-of-state travel for IVF, which will inevitably impact service members.
Whether a person is seeking abortion or a less politicized type of cares, commanders have been instructed “to display objectivity, compassion, and discretion when addressing all health care matters, including reproductive health care matters.”
It’s encouraging to see vital protections for military personnel’s reproductive rights—even as, more ideally, no one would have to leave their state for reproductive care at all. In contrast, some states are taking steps to crack down on abortion-related travel: Earlier this month, Idaho introduced a bill to ban minors from traveling out-of-state for abortion without parental consent. Last summer, Senate Republicans blocked a bill to protect the right to travel out-of-state for abortion services, effectively advocating for people to be forced to live under their state’s abortion ban.
In December, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) introduced the Reproductive Health Travel Act to create a $350 million fund to cover travel-related costs of abortion for people in impacted states. But the bill remains stalled by Republican Senators, and in the absence of legislation like this, too many Americans are left behind.