Capitol Hill lawmakers, advocates question VA abortion ban, women veterans' reproductive care

Abbie Bennett
July 01, 2020 - 1:29 pm
VAWomensClinic

Department of Veterans Affairs

In 1992, Congress passed a law prohibiting the Department of Veterans Affairs from providing abortions or counseling women veterans about abortion. 

"Please note that we cannot, by law, provide abortion services," VA's website reads. There are no exceptions for rape, incest or danger to a woman's life. 

Nearly 30 years later, House Veterans Affairs lawmakers and veteran advocates questioned that prohibition. They called the ban a "harsh inequity," including compared to other federal programs.

Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif., chairwoman of the House Women Veterans Task Force, compared VA's abortion ban to Monday's Supreme Court decision to strike down an abortion law in Louisiana that some said could have closed all but one of the state's clinics which provide abortions. 

The Supreme Court decision and prior legal fights "highlighted how denying veterans health care within a system they rely on imposes prohibitive, geographic and financial barriers on women," Brownley said during a hearing she headed Wednesday on reproductive health care for women veterans at VA. "I call on Secretary Wilkie to prioritize reproductive care and expand medical care to include abortion and abortion counseling." 

Earlier this year, Brownley introduced the Reproductive Health Information for Veterans Act, requiring VA provide abortion counseling to veterans.

In an interview with Connecting Vets, Brownley said the aim of the bill was to "provide parity in all kinds of services to our women veterans." She said a lack of abortion counseling is "a barrier" for women vets, and "withholding it is discriminatory" and "very much a health risk." 

In addition to abortions and abortion counseling, lawmakers and advocates said women veterans face limited access to infertility care and copayments for birth control. 

Lawmakers also mentioned that women veterans of color, especially Black and Indigenous women, are far more likely to die in childbirth, "and most of those could be prevented," Brownley said. But VA does nto provide maternal mortality data by race or ethnicity. Some women also face more complicated pregnancies because of service-connected health concerns. 

Brownley previously told Connecting Vets VA declined to make changes on its own, and said directives would have to come from Congress. Kayla Williams, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and former Center for Women Veterans director, told lawmakers VA would not resolve the issues on its own and veterans depended on Congress to take action.

The department has "neglected to take action for so long now that I believe they require congressional attention," Williams said. "Now, Congress must step forward and ensure that they can access the full spectrum of health care that they deserve."

Women make up nearly 17 percent of active-duty troops, about 19 percent of Guard and Reserve service members and are the fastest-growing group of veterans. VA officials told Congress that women are coming to VA in greater and greater numbers and the department is working to meet their needs. 

But other federal systems, such as Tricare, Medicare, Indian Health Services and the federal prison system all provide greater access to abortion services and counseling than women veterans can get at VA, Williams said, calling it an "appalling" and "potentially deadly" inequity.

While there are areas VA excels at in care of women vets, there are "also matters of law and policy that demand change for equitable care," Williams said.

A service member sexually assaulted while in the military can access abortion services. But if she leaves service and goes to VA, she cannot get any of those services, she said, even if the pregnancy threatens the veteran's life. 

"However we feel about abortion, we should not deny it to women veterans just because they use the VA and take away their ability to make important decisions about their health and futures," she said. 

Committee ranking member Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., a veteran and physician, said he would fight loosening abortion restrictions at VA. 

"I will oppose any effort the VA has to expand abortion, Roe said. "I want to make that part of the record right now. I would oppose that with every effort in my body to prevent that. I think we need to change hearts and minds. Life is a precious gift from God." 

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Reach Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett.

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