Recent data undermines the Pentagon’s assertions its vaunted abortion travel reimbursement policy was essential to military readiness, experts and lawmakers told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

In the six months between June and December 2023, service members utilized the controversial travel policy 12 times, costing the Department of Defense (DOD) just under $45,000 for that time period, the Pentagon said on Tuesday. Pentagon officials consumed valuable time defending the policy to a hostile Congress and endured a months-long protest block on confirming top officers into their roles, although experts and lawmakers said the fight over abortion access appeared in hindsight more trouble than it was worth in comments to the DCNF.

“America’s military strength does not depend on servicewomen aborting their babies, even if DoD travel subsidies are used many times instead of a few,” Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, told the DCNF.

“The paltry number of persons who used the policy defies the rhetoric of the Biden administration,” a statement from Republican Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker’s office sent Wednesday read.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had expressed concern about military “readiness and resilience” in a statement following the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Supreme Court decision passing the ability to regulate abortion down to the state level. His argument, and that of other ranking officials, was that service members have little control over where they are stationed. Women might be less likely to serve if they face the prospect of being assigned a duty station in a state that heavily restricts or even bans abortion.

Austin announced service members and dependents would be able to claim reimbursements for travel expenses while traveling out of state to receive certain forms of assisted reproductive technologies, such as in vitro fertilization, as well as abortions, in October 2022. In a memo, he pledged to protect “seamless access” to abortion, citing the potential impact of the landmark Supreme Court ruling on troop readiness.

The policy went into effect the following February. An accompanying directive authorized commanders to give those service members extra leave time.

“Our Service members and their families do not control where they are stationed, and due to the nature of military service, are frequently required to travel or move to meet operational requirements,” a DOD press release states. The DOD’s efforts will ensure pregnant service members are “afforded time and flexibility to make private health care decisions” and access private abortion providers regardless of where they are stationed.

Pro-life Republicans argued that the Pentagon was trying to skirt state laws and federal legislation that prevents the administration from paying for abortions, pulling the Pentagon into partisan political issues.

The policy also served to trigger a fight between the Pentagon and an influential lawmaker, with top DOD officials callingthe impact “horrific.”

“Devastating. It’s horrific. I’d think of a stronger term if I could,” Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall said in November.

In March, Republican Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville implemented a unilateral blockade in protests of the policy. His tactic blocked the Senate’s usual process of mass-confirming the nominations for hundreds of general and flag officers, preventing them from promoting and in many cases from entering the roles the Biden administration nominated them to fill.

Top Pentagon officials insisted the holds deeply affected national security. Even fellow Republicans mostly agreed, arguing the unilateral blockade was crippling the military during global crises and hurting people who have no control over schemes of the DOD civilian leaders.

The holds didn’t end until December, leaving behind frustrated politicians and failing to sway the Pentagon on the abortion issue.

Republican lawmakers remain frustrated with the Pentagon for its reticence to disclose the numbers underpinning its claims that constraints on abortion access are a national security risk.

I have sent letters on March 1, 2023, September 15, 2023, and October 27, 2023 asking for information that justifies the Department of Defense abortion travel policy, only to be given incomplete, evasive, or outright non-answers to the questions asked,” Wicker, the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, wrote in a letter to Austin dated Monday.

The Senate Armed Services Committee received information from the Army that three service members used the abortion travel regulation between August and December 2023 and claimed expenses totaling $2,097, Wicker said.

The defense official declined to respond to the DCNF’s questions about the letter, saying the DOD would take the matter up with Congress directly.

“Ensuring service members have access to healthcare, including reproductive healthcare, is critical to readiness. The travel policy was used 12 times,” the defense official told the DCNF.​_

In a letter Tuberville sent to Austin in December 2022, he said the policy could facilitate up to 4,100 abortions annually, CNN reported. Researchers at the RAND Corporation said Tuberville was overestimating the number of women in the military who get abortions outside of military health facilities each year based on a 2020 survey, but even Sarah Meadows, a senior sociologist who was involved in the study, estimated somewhere closer to 2,000.

“The Administration broke decades of precedent by using taxpayer funds to facilitate abortions, a program we now know was hardly used. It’s clear this policy was always about political virtue signaling ahead of the 2022 mid term elections rather than readiness and thrusted its senior leaders into a highly controversial issue rather than focusing them on warfighting,” GOP Florida Rep. Michael Waltz, chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness, told the DCNF.

The policy, which came into effect in early 2023 to counteract anticipated restrictions on abortion access as states began to restrict the procedure further, cost DOD about $44,791 during the six months in which it tracked usage, Pentagon deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh said Tuesday.

Dependents and escorts were reimbursed the actual cost of lodging, meals and round-trip transportation, but the non-covered reproductive procedures come at the service member’s expense, Pentagon spokesperson Jade Fulce said in an email on Thursday.

The statistics record the number of times the policy was utilized, not how many members of the military used it, leaving open the possibility one female soldier, sailor, airman or Marine could have taken advantage of the policies more than one time, Singh said. The funds covered lodging, transportation and meals during the leave period.

“This issue is about power politics and precedent,” Donnelly said.

 

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