The Department of Veterans Affairs announced Friday that, for the first time, it will begin providing access to abortion services and counseling to the nation’s hundreds of thousands of female veterans and VA beneficiaries.
The VA’s decision is monumental, but it comes with restrictions: The agency will only provide abortions in cases where a pregnancy is the result of rape, incest or when the life of the woman is at risk.
“This is a patient safety decision,” Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement. “Pregnant veterans and VA beneficiaries deserve to have access to world-class reproductive care when they need it most. That’s what our nation owes them, and that’s what we at VA will deliver.”
Asked why McDonough decided to limit the VA’s abortion services to cases of rape, incest or a woman’s life being at risk, a VA spokesperson told HuffPost, “At this time, VA is responding to the emergency need to protect the life and health of our nation’s Veterans.”
The VA’s move comes roughly two months after conservatives on the Supreme Court gutted Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that provided a constitutional right to an abortion.
McDonough has been under pressure from Democrats to use his authority to ensure that veterans and VA beneficiaries have access to reproductive care in the wake of Roe v. Wade’s demise. Last month, more than two dozen Democratic senators — half of the Senate Democratic caucus — wrote to McDonough urging him to act “immediately.” Roughly 555,000 female veterans used the VA health care system in fiscal year 2020, as did more than 400,000 female dependents and survivors through the agency’s CHAMPVA program.
They were very happy with Friday’s news.
“Today, I’m grateful that Secretary McDonough and the Biden Administration are taking a landmark step to help address the health care crises that Republicans are causing across the country,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions and a senior member of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
“For the first time ever, the Veterans Health Administration will finally be able to provide abortion care to ensure none of our veterans or their eligible dependents will have to face medical emergencies — or stay pregnant after a rape or incest — simply because Republican politicians think they know what’s best for them,” she said.
Unlike the Department of Health and Human Services, the VA is not bound by the Hyde Amendment, the legislative provision that bars the use of federal funds for abortion except in cases where a pregnancy is caused by rape, incest or when the women’s life is at risk. That means VA leaders chose to put Hyde-like restrictions in place despite the agency not being required to.
Sens. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who led the Senate Democratic push on McDonough to take this action, said Friday in a joint statement that they’re glad to see the agency “heeding our calls.” But they urged the VA to drop its restrictions on abortion access.
“This is an important first step. The VA must go further and provide these services to all veterans, regardless of circumstances,” they said. “It’s critical that women are trusted and free to make decisions about their bodies.”
The VA got the ball rolling on its policy change late Thursday by submitting an interim final rule to the Federal Register to allow the agency to begin providing abortion-related services. The new services will be authorized immediately after this rule is published, according to the VA, and then the rule will be available for public comment for 30 days. After that, the VA will begin providing abortions services in “as many locations as possible.”
Here’s a copy of the VA’s interim final rule:
VA officials say they concluded that access to “medically necessary abortions” is essential for preserving the life and health of veterans and VA beneficiaries. They pointed to adverse health consequences to not providing abortions in these circumstances, like increased risk infertility, significant morbidity or even death.
“We came to this decision 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,” Dr. Shereef Elnahal, the VA’s under secretary for health, said in a statement. “Offering this care will save Veterans’ health and lives, and there is nothing more important than that.”
The VA says its health care providers will consult with individual female veterans on a case-by-case basis to make determinations on when a pregnancy may put that veteran’s life at risk. In cases of rape or incest, self-reporting from a veteran or VA beneficiary is considered “sufficient evidence” for proceeding with abortion services.
As for veterans who live in states with new restrictions or even bans on abortions in the aftermath of Roe v. Wade being overturned, the VA makes it clear the federal government has the upper hand over state laws.
“VA employees, when working within the scope of their federal employment, may provide authorized services regardless of state restrictions,” reads a VA statement.