Confusion continues over abortions at military facilities

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

I had really hoped that this situation was largely cleared up in terms of the renewed, fierce abortion debate raging around the country. I’m talking about the subject of abortions for members of America’s armed services and their dependents. We already discussed the confusion caused by recent statements made by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (along with the reason why he should really resign). Austin incorrectly left people with the impression that female military members and their spouses or dependents were able to have abortion procedures performed at military medical facilities and they would continue to be able to do so even after the Dobbs ruling. This is, of course, not true except in the rarest of emergency cases. But as of this morning, I was still seeing people on social media making such claims. And headlines such as this one from the Washington Times probably aren’t helping to clear the waters. “Military will continue some abortions in states that ban the practice, Pentagon says.”

Limited abortions will continue at U.S. military facilities even in states that ban the practice, Pentagon leaders said in a memo Tuesday.

The Defense Department’s new policy guidance comes as the military grapples with the potential fallout from last week’s Supreme Court decision reversing the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling that established a national right to abortion. That decision is expected to lead to near-total abortion bans in states across the country, but military officials said that the Defense Department will continue providing abortion services in limited cases to military personnel regardless of state law.

“Federal law restricts the department from performing abortions or paying to have them performed unless the life of the mother would be endangered if the fetus were carried to term, or unless the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest,” Gilbert Cisneros, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said in the Tuesday memo.

The key word in the title of that article is “some” and it’s doing a lot of heavy lifting. Also, the first sentence of the article includes the phrase “at U.S. military facilities,” which is likewise misleading, even if the author didn’t use it that way intentionally.

I’ve done some digging around to see if there were exceptions to the standard rule which states that no abortions will be performed at military medical facilities. Service members and their dependents are not banned from getting abortions, but they must go to an outside facility to have them done. In the vast majority of cases, they cannot even be reimbursed for the cost of the procedure.

Exceptions are pregnancies caused by rape or incest or complications that could threaten the life of the mother. Those costs can be reimbursed. This is because the Hyde Amendment forbids the expenditure of federal funds to pay for abortions, with the aforementioned exceptions. Since all military facilities and the operations that take place inside of them are, by definition, funded by the taxpayers, that’s just how the rule is imposed.

The other exception which would allow this to happen in a military hospital rather than a civilian facility also involves the life of the mother. In the case of emergency room services, it may sometimes regrettably be a requirement for an expectant mother to lose her baby in the interest of saving her life because of some other critical injury or rapid-onset medical emergency. In those cases, the doctors can terminate the pregnancy as part of their lifesaving efforts. But that’s really not “technically” an abortion procedure. It’s just one aspect of a larger medical event.

With all of that in mind, it’s really not accurate to state that “the Defense Department will continue providing abortion services.” They are not really “providing” them now except in the rarest cases described above. And they’re really not even providing funding to cover them unless the pregnancy falls under one of the exceptions listed in the Hatch Act. Hopefully, we have this all cleared up now.