Senator Grills Pentagon Official On Data Whether Hyped-Up Abortion Restrictions Kept Women From Serving

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Micaela Burrow Investigative Reporter, Defense
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Republican Sen. Ted Budd of North Carolina pressed top Department of Defense (DOD) officials for an update on the Pentagon’s concerns that lack of abortion access could have severe impacts on recruiting and retention at a hearing Wednesday.

Gil Cisneros, the Pentagon’s leading official for personnel issues, responded that the military does not know how many women have left or refused changes of station over abortion since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade  nearly eight months ago. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had expressed concern about military “readiness and resilience” if lack of abortion access dissuaded women from enlisting or caused more female troops to leave the military.

“How many women have refused to be stationed in Germany, South Korea or any other country because of those nations’ abortion laws?” Budd asked. While South Korea has lenient abortion limits, other countries where servicemembers may be stationed, such as the Philippines, restrict it altogether, according to a tracker from the Center for Reproductive Rights.

“I don’t have that information,” Cisneros responded. (RELATED: GOP Senator Leads Bill Banning The Pentagon From Funding Abortion Travel)

Twenty four U.S. states have banned or restricted abortion or have trigger laws facing legal opposition, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights.

The landmark Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization Supreme Court decision gave states the authority to determine their own abortion laws, leaving the Department of Defense (DOD) without means for allowing female service members to have abortions if they are stationed in one of the states that bans or tightly restricts the practice.

“Since the Supreme Court’s decision, we have heard concerns from many of our Service members and their families about the complexity and the uncertainty that they now face in accessing reproductive health care, including abortion services,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said in a statement.

When asked whether the Pentagon has seen a measurable change to recruitment and retention of female servicemembers since changes in abortion laws, Cisneros referenced “listening sessions” with servicemembers as well as a 2022 RAND Corporation analysis.

Researchers at the government-funded group estimated that between 5,000 and 7,400 active duty and civilian female DOD personnel would face additional challenges in obtaining abortion services. Alleged hardships included having to request leave for travel to abortion-permitting states or attempt to have the procedure done illegally.

“It is not unreasonable to expect that both women’s propensity to serve and their subsequent retention intentions will decrease as Dobbs adds to and complicates these issues,” the authors wrote.

In February, Austin handed down official policy authorizing and funding travel for pregnant troops to other states for the purpose of obtaining an abortion. Military members can request up to 21 days of leave to travel to other states for abortions, either for themselves or a spouse or dependents.

Commanders are instructed to approve the absence when a need is identified by the service member unless “the servicemember’s absence would impair proper execution of the military mission,” the policy states.

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