One by one, doctors and active duty U.S. troops pleaded with members of the House Armed Services Committee to do more to help protect access to abortion after the repeal of Roe v. Wade. They shared their stories and offered stark warnings about the challenges service members face accessing abortion already.
An enlisted service member asking to forgo pain management after an abortion to be able to afford the procedure out of pocket. A woman about to start her military career who had to travel to New York to end a pregnancy. A military spouse stationed abroad who fundraised to pay for international flights to get an abortion after finding out her daughter would not survive after birth.
But there were few Republicans in the room to hear their testimonials. Overwhelmingly, the minority party members of the panel did not attend the hearing or ask questions.
“One of the hardest things I do as a physician is tell a family that there is something wrong with their pregnancy,” said Jacqueline Lamme, an ob-gyn and Navy officer, in the committee hearing on Friday. “I’ve had to explain to patients that while ending their pregnancy early was a medical option, it was not something I could legally provide as a military physician and I’ve cried with families after their baby was born and pronounced dead soon afterwards.”
Ghazaleh Moayedi, a civilian ob-gyn who worked near many large military bases, told the story of a patient seeking an abortion after being raped by another service member in Asia. The patient traveled to Hawaii for the procedure because she did not feel safe reporting her assault to her commanding officer.
“It was devastating to see someone dedicated to serving our country abandoned by it,” she said.
While each of these stories happened before the repeal of Roe v. Wade, service members and doctors warned lawmakers that things will only get worse for patients and doctors since the Supreme Court’s decision.
Troops’ access to abortions is limited by the Hyde amendment, which prohibits military facilities from performing abortions except in cases of rape, incest, or elevated risk to the pregnant person’s life. Military health insurance also can not cover abortions in private facilities with the same exceptions. The Defense Department released a memo last month saying military facilities would continue to provide abortions in these limited cases, including in states that have banned the procedure. But troops seeking uncovered abortions unrelated to those exemptions will be required to request leave from duty and then pay for travel to a state that allows the procedure.
Troops are now facing additional restrictions depending on where they are stationed, something over which they have limited control. Some states imposing stricter abortion laws outlaw the procedure even in cases of rape or incest
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., the chair of the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee, said more than 100 military facilities are located in states that ban abortion. Another 29 are in states where lawmakers are expected to pass restrictive bans soon.
“We’re creating a real incentive for women not to serve,” Speier said. “It’s almost an insidious effort to encourage women to leave the military.”
Doctors are also wondering what abortion bans will mean for them. Megan Klocek, an ob-gyn at Naval Hospital Guam, worried about being arrested at her off-base home for procedures legally performed at the military medical facility and said the Defense Department’s promise that Justice Department officials will fight for her in court is “not enough.”
“What assurances can you give me that my family will not be torn apart? How is the
question of jurisdiction to be reconciled when NCIS says I haven’t committed a crime, but Guam says I have?” she wrote in testimony submitted to the committee. “It is quite the leap of faith, to hope it will all just work out. Who will care for my patients if my partners and I are in jail?”
A top question at the hearing was whether the Supreme Court’s decision would impact military readiness if troops decided not to join, left the service, or were forced to keep an unwanted pregnancy. Gil Cisneros, the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, told the committee that he believed the Dobbs decision could lead to troops wanting to leave the military over concerns they would be stationed in a state that bans abortion.
“The individual healthcare of our service members is readiness….If they’re not healthy, they won’t be able to perform their duties,” Cisneros said. “I don’t want to say it’s going to affect readiness, but it is a concern we have.”
Both Air Force officers who testified said they would never discourage a young woman from joining the military today, but expressed concern that the next generation will face more challenges than they did. Sharon Arana, an Air Force officer who had an abortion shortly after commissioning in 2009, also said she would not have been able to continue her military career if she did not travel to New York for an abortion.
The hearing on a political issue that typically leads to heated debates was cordial, in part because most Republican members skipped the proceeding. Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., the subcommittee’s ranking member, questioned the panel of troops and doctors. Rep. Pat Fallon, R-Texas, was recognized during that panel, but declined to ask any questions. No Republicans asked any questions of the second panel of Defense Department officials.
In his remarks, Gallager said the Pentagon should not bow to state laws when deciding where to send troops, but that troops should not be allowed to dodge assignments in any states, either. He asked troops about whether their personal political beliefs should supersede the military’s needs when deciding where to be stationed.
“Our military is predicated on men and women following orders. At times that includes going into harm’s way,” Gallagher said in his opening statement. “The Department of Defense and the services therefore should not consider a state’s laws when making decisions regarding service member assignments, nor should service members be empowered to make assignment decisions based on whether they agree with the state’s laws.”
The Air Force officers said they were not asking for troops to be able to reject assignments, but argued that women’s access to healthcare should not be a political issue that changes state by state.
“As I’m a serving member, I am also owed a standard of care,” Arana said. “I have four daughters and I would hesitate to take any of them to a state where I know that their bodily autonomy is not going to be respected.”