Troops reject abortion travel policy fueling Tuberville blockade

Last updated on September 15, 2023

Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville has blocked hundreds of military promotions over a single policy that allows troops access to abortions, creating turmoil within the Pentagon and even his own party.

But few actually use the program.

Only a small number of service members have taken advantage of the year-old rule that offers paid leave and travel reimbursement to troops seeking abortions and other reproductive care, according to the Pentagon.

A dozen DOD officials, current and former service members and military spouses said in interviews that troops are nervous about seeking the benefit because they say it could compromise their privacy and open them up to retaliation. The widespread reluctance has fueled opponents of the policy, who ask why the administration is holding fast to a program that only a handful of troops have used.

This shows “the Pentagon’s claims about the policy being critically necessary to recruiting … are factually baseless, and they can drop the policy,” Steven Stafford, a spokesperson for Tuberville, said in an email after POLITICO relayed the information. “This cuts both ways.”

Pentagon spokesperson Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder acknowledged in a late August briefing that only a “pretty small” number of troops have used the policy, but said access to reproductive care is “just something that we can’t compromise on.”

Ryder, in a follow-up email, declined to provide the exact number of troops who have accessed the policy, noting that DOD is still collecting data for a report due in January documenting its cost and usage. About 230,000 service members are eligible for the program.

Tuberville is blocking more than 300 senior military promotions until the Pentagon rescinds the travel policy, leaving military families in limbo and three out of eight positions on the Joint Staff filled by interim officers for the first time in history.

“The DOD has lots of policies that are often used infrequently,” said Mark Montgomery, a former admiral and policy director for the Senate Armed Services Committee under the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). “We don’t get rid of those policies in an antidemocratic way where one senator decides to hold the nominations of effectively 700-plus flag or general officers.”

Troops in certain states are struggling with reduced access to reproductive care following the Supreme Court’s decision last June to overturn the constitutional right to an abortion. But in interviews, some service members said they would feel uncomfortable providing that information to their superiors because of the stigma in the military around pregnancy and getting an abortion. Others said they would be wary of using the policy due to concern about backlash from commanders or colleagues.

Tightened abortion restrictions are a particular challenge for military families, who move every few years and often have no choice in where they live.

“That’s a scary conversation to have with your leadership,” said one Army officer stationed in Missouri, who, like others interviewed for this story, was granted anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic. “I’m worried that they are still going to face retaliation because someone in their chain of command might not agree.”

A Defense Department official with knowledge of the policy said health information is restricted to those with “a specific need to know,” and commanders are required to protect troops’ privacy.

That hasn’t calmed some troops, who point to examples of reassignments after abortions.

An Army officer stationed in Kentucky was one of the few to use the travel policy to obtain an abortion in a different state after she was sexually assaulted, according to an Army official with direct knowledge of the case. In order to receive reimbursement, she had to provide documentation from a health provider, as well as fill out paperwork letting her superiors know where she was going and how long she would be gone. After the procedure, the officer was reassigned to a different unit, the official said.

A DOD spokesperson declined to comment on the incident, saying the agency could not talk about specific cases.

Another Air Force officer stationed in Texas said if she needed an abortion, she would not use the travel policy because of “the additional trauma of signing paperwork and having to explain it to people.”

Tuberville and others argue that the travel policy violates the Hyde Amendment, a legislative provision in U.S. law that prohibits the use of federal funds for most abortions, except when the life of the mother is at risk. The military does not cover abortions unless in those cases, or in the case of rape or incest.

“In no way does this warrant the time and effort spent to discuss it,” said Robert Greenway, director of the center for national defense at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, in reference to the small number of troops who use the program. DOD “should comply with the law.”

The Justice Department, however, has said the policy is legal.

Of the five states with the highest number of military bases, three of them have some of the strictest abortion laws in the country, banning the procedure with very limited exceptions: Texas, Georgia and Florida. Texas and Georgia are also the top two states where the number of abortions dropped drastically in the first six months after the Supreme Court decision, said Jackii Wang, senior legislative analyst with the National Women’s Law Center, an advocacy group focused on women and girls.

Some troops and military spouses living in or headed to conservative-run states said they are now taking additional steps to protect themselves against unwanted pregnancies, from getting their tubes tied to having IUDs inserted. Others are considering leaving the military altogether.

One wife of a Space Force officer said her husband may leave the service due to the strain on her family related to reproductive care. They anticipate that his next assignment will be in Florida, where Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis recently signed a law requiring a person to provide proof that a pregnancy was the result of rape or incest in order to obtain an abortion before 15 weeks of gestation.

“I don’t want to put my health care at risk; he doesn’t want to put my health care at risk,” said the woman, who says she had an abortion in Florida two decades ago after she was raped.

Troops have long struggled with stigma around pregnancy. When Mia Leigh Renna found out she was pregnant in 2017, while serving as an officer in the Army National Guard, she said she paid more than $1,000 out of pocket for an abortion.

Soon after, the women in her unit had to take pregnancy tests for a medical readiness drill. Her test showed up positive, which can happen in the aftermath of an abortion or miscarriage. Shortly after, her supervisor moved her to a different unit, a move she considers retaliation.

Renna left the military in 2019.