House Democrats rush to preserve access to abortions for troops

Last updated on July 4, 2022

House Democrats are working to shore up protections for service members or family members who want access to abortions ahead of an expected Supreme Court decision to strike down Roe v. Wade.

As part of budget deliberations before the House Appropriations Committee this week, Democrats passed a measure that would effectively bar commanders from denying leave to troops who are either seeking or helping others to get an abortion. Democrats also beat back a proposal that would have stripped the original measure from the Pentagon’s annual budget bill.

“Now is the time to empower all women to be able to make deeply personal life decisions without politicians inserting themselves into a doctor’s office,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn).

However, Wednesday’s markup debates are likely the opening shot of broader battles in the House and Senate in light of the looming historic Supreme Court decision.

An initial Dobbs v. Jackson majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito and obtained by POLITICO in May would strike down the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling. The decision would rule in favor of Mississippi over the state’s decision to ban most abortions after 15 weeks.

Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) introduced an amendment to strike the military provision that would have protected troops’ access to abortions, and claimed Democrats’ decision to include the protection was political. He questioned why similar leave protections weren’t included for troops seeking cancer screenings and mental health therapy.

“This is interfering in the military that this committee shouldn’t be doing,” Harris said. “This is a bill too important for this kind of politics.”

DeLauro pushed back against the Harris amendment, arguing Congress must step up efforts to support service members during and after their pregnancies.

Roughly two dozen states already have trigger laws in place if the ruling is ultimately overturned by the court.

“How cruel to deny women to make their own medical decisions and then fail to support them once the child is born,” she said. “If they frankly have the misfortune of being stationed in one of these 26 states, then the least we can do for them is to ensure that they can take leave to obtain the medical care that they need.”

The Hyde Amendment, passed in 1976, already limits the Pentagon’s ability to provide federal funding for abortions unless the patient’s life is at risk.

Tricare, the Pentagon’s health care program, covers abortions only in cases of rape or incest, or if the patient’s health is at stake.

Republicans took additional swipes at the issue, despite failing to advance a separate amendment that would have prohibited the military from reassigning personnel in order to avoid discriminatory local laws.

Alabama Republican Rep. Robert Aderholt, who introduced the amendment, railed against an Army memo leaked in May that would allow soldiers to seek reassignments based on local laws that discriminate against sex, gender, religion, race or pregnancy.

Compassionate reassignment, a broader version of the policy that already exists, allows military personnel to pursue moves to other states if they experience a family emergency or hardship.

Republican lawmakers attacked the proposed expansion of the policy, saying it could hurt unit cohesion and force military leaders to make political decisions regarding whether they grant troop reassignments.

“Our nation’s military should not be divided geographically based on ideology but should be united in service to our country,” Aderholt said.

Democrats sank the amendment, and Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) used Republicans’ argument to her advantage by highlighting how the proposal oversteps the committee’s jurisdiction.

“There should be no exception when a member of our military has dependents, family members affected by the dozens of new state laws restricting rights like reproductive rights and LGBTQ rights, it’s overreaching,” Meng said.

Although the provision escaped GOP attacks in the 32-26 approval of the committee’s $762 billion defense legislation, a decision by the Supreme Court to overturn Roe could inflame negotiations about the provision in upcoming defense funding debates.