May 12, 2022

Gillibrand, Colleagues Urge Defense Secretary Austin To Protect Abortion Rights For Service Members

Following the publication of the draft majority opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand led seven of her colleagues in writing a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin urging him to act proactively to protect service members’ abortion rights. If the draft opinion goes into effect, hundreds of thousands of troops, dependents, and DoD civilians stationed in states that ban abortion will lose access to lifesaving reproductive health care and may even face criminal prosecution. The senators are urging the Secretary to implement policy changes to grant service members in need of an abortion permission to travel across state lines to access reproductive health care and abortions. 

Addressing the leaked draft opinion, the senators wrote, “If the opinion goes into effect, hundreds of thousands of troops, dependents, and DOD civilians will lose access to safe abortions and potentially face criminal prosecution for exercising a fundamental human right—creating a scenario where servicemembers’ reproductive and healthcare rights would become dependent on their duty station.”

The senators pushed the secretary on what steps the Defense Department is taking, writing, “at a minimum, you and your staff should consider implementing policy changes to allow servicemembers to obtain, for example, special liberty or permissive temporary additional duty permissions in order to travel out of state for reproductive healthcare and abortions if they are stationed in a jurisdiction that curtails these rights after the Dobbs decision is issued.”

The letter was also signed by Senators Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Gary Peters (D-MI), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Jacky Rosen (D-NV), and Angus King (I-ME).

The full text of the letter is available here or below: 

Dear Secretary Austin,

Last week, a draft opinion for Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization was published in the press and the Supreme Court verified its authenticity.  While the final opinion could change, a final decision from the Court undermining fifty years of precedent established by Roe v. Wade would destroy the fundamental human and reproductive rights of millions of women, willfully disregarding public opinion and court precedent. As we await the Court’s final decision, we cannot wait to act.

If the opinion goes into effect, hundreds of thousands of troops, dependents, and DOD civilians will lose access to safe abortions and potentially face criminal prosecution for exercising a fundamental human right—creating a scenario where servicemembers’ reproductive and healthcare rights would become dependent on their duty station. A soldier at Fort Drum would retain their personal autonomy while a soldier at Fort Hood would not. A servicemember raped by their supervisor in Mississippi, Kentucky, or Oklahoma would not be permitted to obtain an abortion in those states. In places like Missouri, legislators have sought to ban abortions even for ectopic pregnancies, leaving a servicemember or their dependent facing a choice of death or criminal activity. This outcome would violate the trust servicemembers place in the Armed Forces when they swear an oath to defend the Constitution.

This decision will serve as a threat to recruitment and retention as servicemembers elect to leave the military rather than PCS to a duty station where they and their family will be denied fundamental rights. Others will forego military service entirely. Good order and discipline is placed at risk as servicemembers must consider whether to break state law—including proposed laws that would seek to criminalize crossing state lines to obtain an abortion.

As the leader of our military services, it falls upon you to preserve the health and welfare of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and guardians. With our country facing the likely rollback of personal rights, what are you and your staff doing in preparation to protect the health and welfare of those under your command? What steps will you take to assist servicemembers in need of an abortion? At a minimum, you and your staff should consider implementing policy changes to allow servicemembers to obtain, for example, special liberty or permissive temporary additional duty permissions in order to travel out of state for reproductive healthcare and abortions if they are stationed in a jurisdiction that curtails these rights after the Dobbs decision is issued.

The men and women who join the military sacrifice an incredible amount in order to serve their country. We owe it to these servicemembers to look after them and ensure they have the ability to continue accessing safe reproductive healthcare no matter where in the nation their military service sends them.