A partisan and legal clash is brewing over access to abortion counseling and, in extremely limited circumstances, abortions at federal Veterans Affairs hospitals located in states with new abortion bans. Republican attorneys general across the country are threatening legal action over strictly limited new rules issued by the Biden administration to protect pregnant veterans who are facing tragic circumstances. GOP members of Congress, many of them men, are also lining up against abortion rights for veterans.
In September, the Biden administration announced that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs would offer abortion counseling and referrals, as well as abortions when a patient’s life is in danger, or when a pregnancy results from rape or incest. Fifteen Republican attorneys general from Texas, Mississippi, Florida, Indiana, Ohio and other states said they put the administration “on notice” this week. In a letter, they threatened legal action if Veterans Affairs hospitals run afoul of extremely harmful new abortion and reproductive health restrictions passed in their states after the Supreme Court’s far right majority overturned Roe v. Wade.
The fight could get ugly, both in the courtroom and at the doctor’s office. For example, in Alabama, abortion is now banned except in cases where a patient’s life is in danger, and even then, the procedure is heavily restricted. Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall recently suggested he would prosecute doctors who perform abortions for veterans who are victims of rape or incest, which is allowed under the Biden administration’s new federal rules for Veterans Affairs. Under Alabama’s new abortion law, there is no exception for rape or incest, and abortion providers can face up to 99 years in prison.
Veterans Affairs hospitals, which serve U.S. military veterans and their beneficiaries, do not traditionally offer abortions. Veterans Affairs primarily serves veterans, not active-duty personnel. Gynecology, pregnancy and delivery services are limited or nonexistent in some veterans’ clinics, according to reports. However, Democrats have argued that Veterans Affairs hospitals are typically linked to teaching hospitals, and health care providers qualified to provide abortion counseling should be locally available. Additionally, many Veterans Affairs doctors do not work under state licenses that could be compromised or revoked if they consult a patient about abortion.
Veterans and Democrats cheered when the Biden administration released the new rules expanding abortion services at Veterans Affairs hospitals, one of several executive moves made by the White House after the fall or Roe. However, Republicans see a federal intrusion on the supposed power of state legislatures to target doctors and force patients to give birth as they prepare to challenge President Joe Biden’s executive authority.
Attorney General Lynn Fitch, a staunch defender of the Mississippi abortion ban that brought down Roe at the Supreme Court, said in a statement this week that the Veterans Affairs rule for abortion access is either a “cynical attempt to appease” Biden’s “political base,” or a “lawless attempt” to “institute a national regime” of legal abortion, a likely nod to the fear among anti-abortion zealots that federal lands and property could become safe havens for patients. Mississippi consistently suffers from the highest rates of infant mortality, teen pregnancy and poverty among women and children in the nation.
VoteVets, a national organization for progressive veterans, argues the Biden administration did not go far enough in protecting abortion rights for veterans. In extensive comments filed on October 10, the group said they support the new interim rule meant to protect Veterans Affairs doctors who provide abortion counseling and referrals, or an abortion in cases of rape, incest and life-threatening complications. However, VoteVets argues the administration has the legal authority to authorize abortions in all cases within Veterans Affairs, in any state of the country.
The debate is likely to end up in court, perhaps trapping a pregnant veteran in an extensive legal battle over her bodily autonomy and right to receive health care from the country she served. The question for judges will likely hinge on whether abortion is a “needed” medical treatment, which Veterans Affairs is legally obligated to provide. As VoteVets points out, there is a medical consensus that abortion is an essential component of health care for women and anyone who can become pregnant. Beyond that, access to abortion counseling and services is a basic human right, whether a patient served in the military or not.
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