Congress Considering New Leave Rules for Sailors, Marines Seeking Abortions

July 6, 2022 3:28 PM
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Congress is considering new legislation that would remove a barrier for sailors and Marines to get time off for abortions.

Currently, the Navy and Marine Corps do not have a leave policy that would allow pregnant service members to get abortions, especially those that require leaving the state. Although Tricare, the military insurance, covers abortions when the mother’s life is at risk or in the case of rape, federal funding cannot be used for abortions, meaning most service members must go elsewhere for the services.

For sailors stationed in Texas, which has a total abortion ban, this would mean crossing state lines. Florida, home to Naval Air Station Pensacola, has a 15-week ban in place, although it is currently being challenged in court.

The Army and the Air Force both have policies that prevent a commander from denying leave for pregnancy termination, but the Navy and Marine Corps have not adopted similar policies.

A provision in a version of the Fiscal Year 2022 House appropriations bill for the Department of Defense could allow naval and Marine Corps service members to take leave to travel out of state for an abortion.

Under the provision in the House Appropriations Committee’s mark, no funds can be used to prevent a service member or Department of Defense employee from taking leave to get an abortion or accompany a significant other who is getting one.

The provision passed through the House Appropriations Committee, despite Republicans trying to pass an amendment that would strip it. However, a similar provision is not in the chairman’s mark for the House Armed Services Committee.

The House Appropriations Committee passed its mark of the bill days before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, sending the ability to ban abortion back to the states. Several states have enacted bans or will do so soon.

In arguing against an amendment submitted by Rep. Andy Harry (R-Md.), which would have stripped the provision, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) noted that the provision would make it so sailors and Marines were not denied leave.

“​​Why should not every single woman who’s raised up their hand and taken an oath be guaranteed the same health care right?” McCollum said.

Rep. Rosa DeLaura (D-Conn.) told her colleagues that service members would be “hostages to their geography” if the provision were not included.

Approximately 83,000 sailors are stationed in Virginia, with about 77,700 in California, the two states with the largest naval population. Virginia allows abortions until the third trimester, with California limiting them after fetal viability.

But for sailors in Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Alabama, Missouri and South Dakota, total abortion bans are already in place, according to The 19th. For the most part, these states have a small naval presence.

There are 6,189 sailors in Texas and 1,665 in Oklahoma. The others have less than 1,000 sailors in each state, according to a March Pentagon

Sailors in South Carolina (8,240) and Tennessee (1,618) could soon have six-week abortion bans, while Florida (29,000) faces a 15-week ban.

The lack of sailors in affected states could be why the Navy does not have a separate policy, similar to the Air Force and Army.

The Navy’s policy for abortion only covers those that fall under Department of Defense guidelines. The policy does not cover abortions for pregnancies that are not the result of rape or incest or do not endanger the mother’s life.

There is no plan to change the Navy’s policies, said spokesperson Gloria Kwizera in an email.

Sailors can request leave through a self-service system and must include the leave location, means of travel and dates. The unit commander generally approves the leave, Kwizera said.

Under Secretary of Defense Gilbert Cisneros Jr. released a statement last week, in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling, saying it would not affect the Department of Defense from performing abortions already allowed under federal law or leave policies.

“Existing Department policy authorizes active duty Service members to travel as necessary to receive abortion care — either as Government-funded, official travel for a covered abortion, or at the Service member’s own expense on regular leave for all other cases,” according to the memo.

The Department of Defense is currently reviewing its policies in light of the Supreme Court ruling and may issue further guidance, according to the memo.

“This decision will have significant implications for our Service members, dependents, other beneficiaries of DoD health care services, and civilian employees, as well as the readiness of the Force,” Cisneros wrote in the memo. “As Secretary Austin has made clear, nothing is more important that the health and well-being of our Service members, the civilian workforce, and DoD families, and we are committed to taking care of all of our people and ensuring that the entire Force remains ready and resilient.”

Heather Mongilio

Heather Mongilio

Heather Mongilio is a reporter with USNI News. She has a master’s degree in science journalism and has covered local courts, crime, health, military affairs and the Naval Academy.
Follow @hmongilio

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