Rep. Crow proposes legislation to protect military members’ access to abortion

Bill requires automatic approval for leave, as is case for other critical medical needs

By: - September 20, 2022 7:00 am

U.S. Rep. Jason Crow speaks during a press conference on Capitol Hill with members of The American Legion on June 16, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

U.S. Rep. Jason Crow proposed a bill today that would protect U.S. service members’ right to abortion care across the military, regardless of what state they are posted in and that state’s abortion policies.

The Access to Reproductive Care for Servicemembers Act, sponsored by Crow and Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, would codify into law a policy that exists in some military sectors that requires commanders to automatically approve medical leave for abortion care and guarantee privacy protection. 

While similar policies are already in place with the Army and Air Force, the new law would expand this access across every branch of the military. It would define abortion as time-sensitive, warranting immediate commander approval, while also allowing service members to take leave without disclosing to a commander the type of medical procedure needed.

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The bill also says that if abortion care isn’t available in the service member’s jurisdiction, the Defense Department would pay for travel expenses as is consistent with its policies around other necessary medical travel. Retaliation from commanding officers or other service members is prohibited in the bill. 

“One of the critical components of being a legislator is doing accountability and oversight work, so if women are not being adequately protected under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and they’re retaliated (against) for seeking medical care, then we will work to hold those commanders and the civilian authorities accountable,” Crow told Newsline Monday.

As previously reported by States Newsroom, the current military health care program, known as TRICARE, covers abortions only if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, or if carrying the pregnancy to term would put the patient’s life at risk. The program covers the health care of military members and often their children and spouses, too. 

“For service members who must travel for an abortion, the expected cost is $1,100 or more, which is almost half of the monthly pay for a typical junior enlisted service member,” Speier, chair of the House’s Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee said in a news release. “The very least we can do is reimburse service members’ travel expenses and ensure their request for leave is approved free from retaliation. I’m proud to co-lead this legislation with Rep. Crow that will do just that.”

Crow, who is a military veteran himself, said it’s essential that men and women have the same health care access across the ranks of the military. He said the bill seeks to treat abortion care like any other critical health care need.

“That’s essential to the trust that’s necessary in the military,” Crow said. “It’s essential for our national security and of course it’s the most moral thing, and the military needs to be the standard bearer of our values for our country.”

Last month, Crow held a roundtable in Aurora, where he heard from Colorado abortion providers about their needs. He specifically remembered during the roundtable hearing from a military veteran now working in health care about how important it is to create “a structure that allows for confidentiality” and allows women to seek the care they need. 

That was Kelsey Laurer, a certified nurse midwife who served as a midwife in the Army at Fort Carson for three years. She said she’s glad to see an actual proposal aiming to protect abortion care for all service members, especiallly since “we’re on a backslide where folks are losing rights.” 

“I love the idea of service members getting abortion care on post, because obviously some posts are very remote and there aren’t many options,” Laurer said. “However, being familiar with the culture on military posts — it probably does fluctuate from one post to another. Not all of the providers on post are anti-choice, but there are certainly a good number, I would say more than the average when you’re talking about the civilian sector.”

Laurer said prioritizing confidentiality for service members who need abortion care is key because of how easy it can be for the chain of command to find out why someone is asking for medical leave. She said there are “certainly” leaders in the military who will dig deeper with additional questioning when it isn’t necessary. 

“It’s just not very well protected information, so those are kind of my main concerns, that the command would find out, there would be a stigma against them because of that,” Laurer said. “There’s already issues of sexism in the military — we already know it, we’ve heard about it — and I think that would be exacerbated if folks didn’t have their confidentiality protected.”

But Crow said he knows any bill that “provides reproductive choice and freedom for women” currently won’t make it through a filibuster in the Senate. He said he’s looking for other opportunities to get the policy put in place if the bill fails to become law, including his direct work with leaders in the Department of Defense who can implement policies “with the stroke of a pen.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 12:51 p.m., Sept. 20, 2022, to include comment from Kelsey Laurer. 

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Lindsey Toomer
Lindsey Toomer

Lindsey Toomer covers politics, social justice and other stories for Newsline. She formerly reported on city government at the Denver Gazette and on Colorado mountain town government, education and environment at the Summit Daily News. Toomer graduated from the Pennsylvania State University, where she also served as managing editor of The Daily Collegian, with degrees in journalism and global studies.

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