How US military became collateral damage in abortion rights fight

On Monday the Navy became the third military branch led by an acting service chief due to an ongoing protest by Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.), who is blocking the Senate from confirming the promotions of more than 300 general and flag officers.

Tuberville is using the Senate’s procedures to prevent lawmakers from voting on military promotions en masse to force the Defense Department to end its policy of covering the travel expenses of service members who need to go out of state for abortion care.

As a result, Navy Adm. Lisa Franchetti will remain vice chief of naval operations while performing the duties of chief of naval operations, a service spokesperson told Task & Purpose.

Sen. Tuberville’s hold on promotions also means Marine Gen. Eric Smith must simultaneously serve as the Corps’ acting commandant and assistant commandant, said Marine Corps spokesman Maj. Joshua Larson.

“Gen. Smith is doing the job of two people,” Larson told Task & Purpose. “This means he has to do the job in a different way than he would if there was a confirmed commandant and confirmed assistant commandant. Of course, the Marines remain ready as always, but it makes it more challenging without all the right people in all the right places.”

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The Senate has also not voted to confirm Army Gen. Randy George as his service’s chief of staff. George is still serving as vice chief of staff of the Army.

As a result of Tuberville’s hold, the Army’s “whole system is getting kind of constipated” with roughly 12 general officers unable to retire because their replacements have not yet been confirmed, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said on July 20 during the Aspen Security Forum.

“That means that of our key organizations are not going to be led by the people who we hand-selected, who had all the right experiences to take over those formations,” said Wormuth, who added that she worried that Army field grade officers might decide to leave the service rather than themselves and their families through such an uncertain confirmation process for promotions.

Senators also have not voted on Space Force Lt. Gen. Stephen Whiting’s nomination to receive a fourth star and lead U.S. Space Command, or Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown Jr.’s nomination as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Air Force Chief of Staff Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr. addresses students from Air War College and Air Command and Staff College at Air University. (Trey Ward/U.S. Air Force)

With Army Gen. Mark Milley scheduled to retire at the end of September, the U.S. military faces the very real possibility of not having a Senate-confirmed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in little more than a month. Meanwhile, the Defense Department is facing off with Iran in the Strait of Hormuz, the security situation in sub-Saharan Africa continues to deteriorate, and China continues to make clear it is willing to seize Taiwan by force.

If Tuberville continues to block promotions by the end of the year, the nominations of nearly 650 general and flag officers will be in limbo, a defense official said.

Tuberville’s hold shows that the U.S. military has been involuntarily drawn into a nationwide fight over abortion care that exploded after the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, which had guaranteed federal protections for abortion rights.

Since then, 21 states have eliminated all or some abortions, including many states that host large military installations including Texas, Florida, Arizona, Georgia, Mississippi, and Tuberville’s home state of Alabama.

These restrictions particularly affect servicewomen and military families, who do not get to decide where they live. Instead, they are assigned a duty location by the Defense Department.

The Defense Department announced in February that it would pay travel allowances for service members and military dependents to go out of state for reproductive care, including abortions. The policy does not pay for the medical care itself, and it does not limit what type of reproductive healthcare troops and their families can receive.

The Justice Department has determined that paying for such travel expenses complies with the 1976 Hyde Amendment, under which Defense Department facilities can only provide abortions in instances of rape or incest, or when a mother’s life is at risk.

Abortion care
Since the Supreme Court overturned the Roe v. Wade decision in 2022, a total of 21 states have made some or all abortions illegal. (Photo courtesy of Planned Parenthood Federation of America).

“This language ‘does not prohibit the use of funds to pay expenses, such as a per diem or travel expenses, that are incidental to the abortion,’” the Justice Department wrote in a legal opinion last October.

The Defense Department’s travel policy allows servicewomen and military dependents facing ectopic pregnancies to get lifesaving care, said retired Navy Capt. Lory Manning, a board member of the Service Women’s Action Network, an advocacy group for military women.

Ectopic pregnancies occur when a fertilized egg grows outside of a woman’s uterus, such as in a fallopian tube. That can cause the tube to rupture, which would cause major internal bleeding that is potentially fatal unless it is treated immediately. 

Symptoms of an ectopic pregnancy usually present themselves after six or eight weeks – beyond the limitations that many states have placed on abortion care.

Even in states that allow abortions to save a mother’s life, doctors may feel they are legally required to wait until ectopic pregnancies become life-threatening before removing the embryo, Manning told Task & Purpose on Monday.

That’s why Tuberville’s opposition to the Defense Department’s travel policy is putting service members “in danger without any real reason.”

However, Tuberville is opposed to broadening the type of abortion care that servicewomen can receive beyond the conditions in the Hyde Amendment, said Steven Stafford, a spokesman for the senator.

“Coach is advocating for the Pentagon to return to its previous abortion policy, which allowed for taxpayer funding of abortion in cases of rape, incest, and a threat to the life of the mother,” Stafford told Task & Purpose. “He also does not object to servicemembers or their family members using their allotment of leave to go out of state to get abortions.”

Still, Manning said her group believes that military women should have access to abortion care, regardless of whether a mother’s life is at risk.

“There are reasons beyond life-threatening situations why a woman might choose abortion,” Manning said. “It’s not just ‘Oh, I’m not in the mood for a baby today.’ It goes beyond that. She might not be able to afford another baby. She might already have seven of them. There are plenty of reasons why women choose abortion beyond just what’s life threatening.”

Ultimately, the decision on whether to meet Tuberville’s demands would fall on Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin or President Joe Biden.

With no indications that Tuberville plans to change his position any time soon, the fight over abortion care looks to be the Defense Department’s true pacing challenge for the foreseeable future.

UPDATE: 08/14/2023; this story was updated with comments from Army Secretary Christine Wormuth.

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