Army Makes It Harder for Commanders to Deny Soldiers Leave for Abortions

June 27, 2024
A Planned Parenthood sign

The Army has set new policies making it more difficult for units to deny soldiers’ requests to take leave to receive reproductive care including abortions, according to a force-wide memo.

The strict new policies strip company-level commanders, usually a captain, of any authority to deny a soldier’s request to take leave and travel for care, and move that authority to the brigade level, typically a colonel much higher up in the soldier’s chain of command. That brigade commander is also required to receive legal counsel if they deny the soldier’s request, according to the policies set earlier this month.

The move follows new Pentagon rules last year for all the service branches allowing up to three weeks of administrative leave and transportation expenses for troops who seek abortion care when the life of the mother is at risk and for other fertility treatments, for themselves or when traveling with a spouse seeking that care. That earlier policy came after a Supreme Court decision that allowed states to ban or curtail abortion services.

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In the new Army policy, the service also included a provision for commanders who morally object to the treatment a soldier is seeking. In that scenario, the approval will move on to the next level in the chain of command — but the policy stipulates that the request “will not be delayed.”

Making decisions on approvals or disapprovals will not take more than a week, the policy states.

That denial authority goes far beyond the Pentagon’s initial guidance, which left the responsibility to low-level, and often young, commanders. Moving the denial authority higher in the chain of command presumably makes it much less likely a soldier’s request would be denied, adding burdensome bureaucratic layers if commanders say no.

Beefing up that denial authority is a similar move to how the Army handled its parental leave policy implemented in 2023, after Congress mandated each of the services grant 12 weeks of leave for new mothers and fathers in the military. The Army’s implementation of that policy was long delayed and eventually came a month after the congressionally mandated deadline.

The delay was mostly due to a behind-the-scenes debate on denial authority, as Army Secretary Christine Wormuth sought protections that were stronger than the other services. In the Army, only the first general officer in the chain of command above a birth and non-birth parent can deny the leave, while the other services placed much of that authority on low-level commanders.

Still, later found anecdotes of new parents being denied leave by company commanders. That concern eventually spurred Wormuth to publish a rare follow-up memo to the force reminding commanders where the denial authority lies.

The Pentagon’s reproductive care policy was a reaction to the Supreme Court’s ruling on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned the constitutional right to an abortion established in the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling.

The lion’s share of troops are stationed in politically conservative states, many of which had so-called “trigger laws” that went into effect immediately after the court’s decision and dramatically reduced access to abortions. Even in cases in which the life of the mother is at risk, women have had difficulty getting care.

The new policy allowing troops travel and leave was meant to ease that burden for those stationed in areas where abortion services are either banned or tightly restricted, allowing them to travel to other locations and states for health care.

However, it has also caused blowback from lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., waged a nearly yearlong blockade of senior officer promotions, which he eventually ended with no concessions from the Pentagon after outcry and criticism from lawmakers in his own party.

This month, House Republicans passed a measure into the $895 billion National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, that would ban the military from covering leave and travel costs for service members seeking abortions.

It remains unclear whether the measure will ever become law. The House and Senate still need to negotiate a final version of the bill that must be signed into law by President Joe Biden, which could happen later this year.

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