Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) speaks during a press conference following a Senate Democratic luncheon at the U.S. Capitol on September 28, 2022.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) speaks during a press conference following a Senate Democratic luncheon at the U.S. Capitol on September 28, 2022. Getty Images / Anna Moneymaker

Democrats Introduce New Path To Protect Troops’ Abortion Access

An NDAA amendment that would give troops the time and money to cross state lines for an abortion has 23 Democratic co-sponsors.

Democrats are renewing their push to protect service members’ access to abortion ahead of the midterm elections, arguing that troops shouldn’t be stripped of rights based on where the military stations them. 

The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and the flood of abortion regulations enacted by more than a dozen states that followed left 40 percent of active-duty women stationed in the United States with “no or severely restricted” access to abortion, according to a RAND report released this month. Advocates for troops freedom of choice argue that, unlike civilians, people in the military don’t get to choose where they live, and can be ordered to go to several states with large military footprints, including Texas and Florida, that are implementing abortion bans or restrictions. 

In June, Democrats introduced legislation that would remove the restrictions that forbid Defense Department medical facilities to perform abortions except in cases of rape or to save a mother’s life. The legislation, intended to ensure troops can access abortions regardless of where they’re stationed, has so far been stalled in Congress. Now lawmakers are looking at other ways to make it easier for troops and dependents to access the procedure. 

On Wednesday, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., plans to introduce an amendment to the 2023 defense authorization bill that would ensure troops have the time and money needed to cross states lines for an abortion if they are stationed in a state that bans the procedure, according to text of the proposal shared with Defense One

The amendment would provide “convalescent leave” to troops who need to travel for an abortion. Service members stationed in the continental United States would get 10 days, while those based internationally would get 20. Anyone having to travel more than 50 miles from their base would also be eligible to receive an allowance for the transportation expenses under the Joint Travel Regulations.  

The proposal has 23 Democratic co-sponsors as well as the endorsement of pro-choice organizations like the National Women’s Law Center, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and Protect Our Defenders, according to a staffer from Shaheen’s office. 

Troops would be able to get the same leave to accompany a dependent, like a spouse or child, to another state to receive an abortion. 

The leave would be approved by a military doctor, not by a service member’s commande. The doctor would not need to disclose the reason for the convalescent leave to the service member’s chain of command to protect their privacy. 

It’s not clear if the amendment will be considered by the Senate, which has yet to take up its version of the fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act. How many and which amendments get a vote is typically tightly controlled by leadership, and with limited legislative days remaining in the year, it’s unclear whether the Senate will debate the bill at all, or whether lawmakers will conference the bill with their House counterparts first and attempt to pass the compromise legislation. 

On Wednesday afternoon, five Democrats held a press conference slamming Republicans for pursuing federal abortion bans that they say will penalize troops, especially because of the high rates of sexual assault in the military. The lawmakers called on their colleagues to pass legislation to ensure troops and veterans have options when deciding whether or not to carry a pregnancy. 

“Elected officials like Lindsey Graham…are thanking our heroes for their sacrifices by telling them what they can or can not do with the bodies they’ve already risked time and again for our country. To me, that equates to punishing them for their willingness to serve,” said Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., an Army veteran.

Duckworth, who lost both legs when her helicopter crashed in Iraq, said military doctors prescribed her birth control to allow her to avoid getting her period while serving in combat, where she would not have access to pads or tampons. 

“Many in our country were just fine with me controlling my reproductive health when it suited them, but only when it suited them,” Duckworth said. “It is shameful that with that choice to continue serving our country, so many of these women lose the right to choose. It’s disgraceful that after we applaud these women for choosing to put themselves in harm's way overseas, we abandon them.”

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., also urged lawmakers to act immediately to ensure troops have access to reproductive healthcare, including birth control, fertility treatments, and abortion.

“After all they have done for this country, basic healthcare and basic human rights are not too much to ask,” she said.