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No plans to change abortion policy despite GOP demand, Army secretary says

Christine Wormuth said the policy is important to ensure that the Army can retain female troops who might leave the military if they cannot get access to abortion services.
Christine Wormuth, the Secretary of the Army, arrives for the graduation ceremony of the U.S. Military Academy class of 2023 on May 27, 2023, in West Point, N.Y.
Army Secretary Christine Wormuth arrives for the graduation ceremony of the U.S. Military Academy class of 2023 in West Point, N.Y., on May 27.Bryan Woolston / AP file

The Defense Department has no plans to stop covering the travel costs of female troops who seek abortions across state lines, despite protests from a Republican senator who has blocked hundreds of military promotions over the issue, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said on Thursday.

“I see this, and I think the (defense secretary) does as well, as taking care of our soldiers, and it’s the right thing to do, and I don’t think we’re going to change it,” Wormuth told NBC News’ Courtney Kube at an event at the Aspen Security Forum.

Since the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson decision removed the constitutional right to abortion last year, more than 40% of female service members stationed in the United States have no access, or severely restricted access, to abortion services, according to the Rand Corporation think tank.

Wormuth said the policy also was important to ensure that the Army can retain female troops who might leave the military if they cannot get access to abortion services. “I see this as a retention issue,” Wormuth said.

The policy also ensures women in the military have access to in vitro fertilization, since it is not necessarily available in the areas where troops are posted, Wormuth said.

Wormuth said she had not seen data on how many female troops had traveled across state lines for abortion services or the amount of Defense Department funds spent on it so far.

Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama has held up the promotions of more than 250 military officers for months in order to force an end to the policy. 

Tuberville says he wants a vote on a bill introduced by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., that would codify the Pentagon abortion policy into law, and that he will end his blockade if it passes. In return, Tuberville says that he wants the Defense Department to agree to cancel the policy if the measure fails. 

Defense Department officials held a closed-door briefing Wednesday with senators on the Armed Services Committee, including Tuberville, regarding the department’s abortion travel policy, NBC News has previously reported.

The issue has complicated the normally bipartisan politics that surround the National Defense Authorization Act, an annual defense policy bill. Republicans in the House have inserted an amendment into their version of the bill that would force the Pentagon to end the policy.

Wormuth, echoing comments by other Pentagon officials and senior officers, said the blockade is having ripple effects on troops and families that could jeopardize readiness and prompt some service members to quit.

“Basically what’s happening is our whole system is getting kind of constipated,” Wormuth said.

About a dozen three- and four-star generals have had to put off their retirements for two or three months, and the officers selected to replace them are not in their new positions, she said.

The biggest concern, she said, is that junior officers may conclude that it’s not worth remaining in the military given the uncertainty and delays affecting their families.

“I really worry that we’re going to have a brain and talent drain as a result of this really unprecedented step that Sen. Tuberville has chosen,” she said.

The blockade on promotions is just the latest example of the military being drawn into Washington’s polarized politics and turned into a “political football,” Wormuth said. 

“I think our military is being dragged into the political space in ways that are very unproductive,” she said. “But I want to be clear that I do not see our officers becoming politicized, that is the last thing most officers that I’ve worked with want to happen.”

She said younger officers might think twice about pursuing high-ranking positions having seen the polarized atmosphere at congressional hearings where generals face partisan questioning.

“I do think they look at our general officers who testify in hearings and see the kinds of interactions that our general officers are having each and every week and they ask themselves, ‘Do I want to be on the receiving end of that type of interaction?’”