U.S. troops are volunteering to fly people seeking an abortion from states that have banned the procedure to states where they can receive care, arguing that they donned a uniform to fight for freedom—including “freedom of choice.”
Elevated Access is a nonprofit founded in April that connects volunteer pilots with people needing an abortion who live in the more-than-a-dozen states where the procedure is banned. Those pilots use their own private planes, donating their time, fuel, and maintenance costs, said Fiona, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit who declined to use her last name to protect her privacy.
More than 800 pilots have volunteered to fly for Elevated Access, Fiona said. The group does not know how many of those have current and former ties to the military because the application does not ask about their military background. But, some pilots have voluntarily shared their military backgrounds or sent photos of themselves in a military uniform.
“I got an email from a pilot…in California and he’s an Air Force reservist offering to help us recruit more pilots from the military,” she said. “This is a guy who feels like…this is another way to serve his country.”
The group facilitated one flight so far from Oklahoma to Kansas in mid-June. “We have done one flight, and that was by design. We wanted to demonstrate it can be done,” Fiona said. “We’re not going to stand up a national airline overnight.”
One active-duty Air Force officer, who learned about the group from a Facebook group for pilots, told Defense One his decision to volunteer for the group “ties back in with why I even joined the military.”
“Both of my grandparents served in World War II, fighting for an idea that’s bigger than themselves that America stands for freedom,” the officer said, speaking on background to discuss the sensitive nature of abortion. “That idea has evolved quite a lot since World War II….Now, that freedom transcends freedom of choice, but also means allowing women and men to stand on equal footing.”
The officer, who has worked with domestic violence and sexual assault cases professionally during his more than five years in the Air Force, said working with victims has also influenced his view on women who need reproductive care.
“These issues can be foundational to someone’s life and Elevated Access to offering a solution to help not necessarily solve these issues, but empower the person to at least move past those issues, or at least find a path forward in their life, instead of dealing with consequences that they otherwise would not have had to if they lived in another state,” the officer said.
A member of the National Guard who declined to reveal his rank in order to protect his identity, and is also a police officer, also said he was driven to volunteer with Elevated Access for the same reason he signed up to serve: a desire to help people.
“If it’s within your capability to help out a fellow American, you should do it,” the Guardsman said, also speaking on background. “That’s why a whole lot of us joined the military in the first place. You can look at this as an extension of…patriotic duty.”
Still, the Air Force officer and National Guardsman said they have not shared their intent to volunteer with anyone in their chain of command. Members of the military who volunteer with the group do so in their personal capacity, and would not wear their uniform or use any military assets while conducting the flights.
“I know one of my bosses is pretty conservative….I know it could come at some type of cost, either with promotion ratings or some type of performance report stuff,” the Air Force officer said. “But I think this is worth it, I really think this is worth it because this matters on a very basic human level to just get people the treatment they need.”
Pentagon officials did not respond to a request for comment on whether volunteering for this organization violates any rules. But Rachel VanLandingham, a professor at Southwestern Law School and former Air Force judge advocate, said the pilots are likely legally in the clear. An order not to volunteer would likely be an unlawful order since troops are volunteering in their off time and the flights have no impact on military duty, or good order and discipline. Outside the military, VanLandingham also predicted troops would be protected from state laws that could be used to prosecute someone for helping a person seek an abortion in a state where it is banned. Because the pilots would be flying to states where the procedure is allowed, they would be an accomplice to a legal abortion, not an illegal abortion, she argued.
Patients don’t contact Elevated Access directly, Fiona said. Instead, the group works with local providers like Planned Parenthood to get connected with people who must travel to seek care.
The group plans conduct more flights first in the Midwest, then in the South, two areas that have been especially hard hit by abortion bans.