The Department of Veterans Affairs plans to offer abortion access to veterans and eligible dependents in cases of rape, incest and pregnancies that endanger the life or health of an individual, arguing the change is needed after more than two dozen states banned the procedure this summer.
The move marks the first time VA physicians could perform abortions on federal property, even in states where it has been outlawed.
The decision comes 10 weeks after the Supreme Court overturned its 1973 Roe vs. Wade ruling, which legalized abortion nationwide. That in turn has prompted a national debate over the department’s responsibilities and limits in regards to reproductive health services for women veterans.
Administration officials have argued that VA employees, when working within the scope of their federal jobs, may provide needed services regardless of state restrictions.
Under a proposed rule submitted to the Federal Register Thursday night, VA health care providers could also coordinate abortions with private sector medical offices in locations where the procedures are allowed, and provide counseling on options to all pregnant veterans and eligible beneficiaries.
Both the counseling and abortion procedures would be authorized as soon as next week, pending publication by federal officials and potential legal challenges.
In a statement, VA Secretary Denis McDonough called the move “a patient safety decision” that will fill a critical gap in available medical care.
“Pregnant veterans and VA beneficiaries deserve to have access to world-class reproductive care when they need it most,” he said. “That’s what our nation owes them, and that’s what we at VA will deliver.”
VA officials do not know how many veterans may qualify for abortion procedures.
About 2 million women veterans live in America today. In addition, dependents who are enrolled in VA’s Civilian Health And Medical Program (CHAMPVA) would also be eligible for certain abortion services. That program covered about 434,000 individuals last year.
Since the Supreme Court decision in late June, at least 25 states have started to place limits or already imposed restrictions on health care workers from providing abortions. Some of those moves have been blocked by legal challenges.
Texas, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana and Ohio currently have near total bans on the procedure. VA operates 24 major medical centers in those five states alone.
Dr. Shereef Elnahal, VA’s under secretary for health, said department leadership made the move “after listening to VA health care providers and veterans across the country, who sounded the alarm that abortion restrictions are creating a medical emergency for those we serve.”
He said offering abortion counseling and access is “in accordance with generally accepted standards of medical practice” and asserted that “offering this care will save veterans’ health and lives, and there is nothing more important than that.”
In late July, a group of 25 senators — all Democrats and independents — urged McDonough to begin offering abortions at VA campuses, calling it a way to ensure that veterans’ rights to reproductive care are protected.
But Republicans on Capitol Hill strongly oppose the idea.
At multiple hearings in recent months, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee ranking member Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, chastised VA officials for considering such a move and cited the Veterans Health Care Act of 1992, which prohibits abortions at VA medical locations.
Democratic supporters have argued that under the Veterans Health Care Eligibility Reform Act of 1996, the department can furnish “needed” medical care to veterans, including abortions. VA appears to be using that legal defense to justify the changes.
In a statement on Friday, House Veterans’ Affairs Committee ranking member Mike Bost, R-Ill., attacked VA’s announcement.
“Abortion is wrong, and Congress prohibited VA from providing it decades ago,” he said. “This proposal is contrary to longstanding, settled law and a complete administrative overreach. I oppose it and am already working to put a stop to it.”
VA officials noted that veterans face a higher risk of experiencing pregnancy-related complications due to increased rates of chronic health conditions, making access to abortion necessary “to protect the life and health of pregnant veterans.”
Determination of whether a veteran’s life or health is at risk from pregnancy will be made on a case-by-case basis after consultation with VA health care providers. Officials said that self-reporting from a veteran or VA beneficiary “will constitute sufficient evidence that an act of rape or incest occurred.”
Exactly when and where procedures may take place is unclear. Department officials said that after the rule is published, which is expected in the next few days, they will immediately prepare to provide services in “as many locations as possible.”
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.