The Department of Veterans Affairs has the legal authority to provide abortions and abortion counseling to millions of thousands of female veterans and spouses of veterans ― and it should “immediately” begin doing so, more than two dozen Democratic senators argued in a Thursday letter to VA Secretary Denis McDonough.
The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade “removed constitutional protection for abortion access from millions of individuals in this country, including an ever-growing number of veterans and dependents who are able to become pregnant,” reads the letter, signed by half of the Senate Democratic Caucus. “This decision makes it even more critical that veterans receive access to the reproductive care to which they are entitled.”
“Thus, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) must urgently begin rule-making to allow veterans and eligible dependents to receive abortions and all abortion-related services,” the senators wrote.
Current federal regulations bar the VA from providing any abortion-related services. Beyond that, CHAMPVA, the department’s insurance program for certain dependents and survivors of veterans, only offers abortion services in cases where the mother’s life is in danger. But McDonough has the authority to change all of these regulations through the rule-making process ― and the senators say he should do so, now.
“The VA’s authority to provide care to veterans is established in the Veterans Health Care Eligibility Reform Act of 1996. That statute provides that the VA Secretary ‘shall furnish hospital care and medical services which the Secretary determines to be needed’ to certain veterans,” the senators’ letter says. “Importantly, the VA has used its authority under the Veterans Health Care Eligibility Reform Act of 1996 to provide reproductive care such as pregnancy care and infertility services, even though such care was initially excluded from the health care packages allowed under the Veterans Health Care Act of 1992.”
“We call on you to take swift and decisive action to ensure all of our veterans and CHAMPVA beneficiaries can access abortions and all abortion-related services,” they conclude.
The letter is signed by Democratic Sens. Mazie Hirono (Hawaii), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), Michael Bennet (Colo.), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Cory Booker (NJ), Catherine Cortez Masto (Nev.), Tammy Duckworth (Ill.), Dick Durbin (Ill.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Kirsten Gillibrand (NY), John Hickenlooper (Colo.), Angus King (I-Maine), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Ed Markey ( Mass.), Patty Murray (Wash.), Alex Padilla (Calif.), Jack Reed (RI), Jacky Rosen (Nev.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Tina Smith (Minn.), Chris Van Hollen (Md.), Raphael Warnock (Ga.), Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) and Ron Wyden (Ore.).
Here’s a copy of their letter:
Hirono, who co-led the letter with Warren, said the “chaos” created by the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade means that it’s time to revisit longstanding regulations for reproductive health care. The VA policy in particular, she said, is ripe for change.
“As far as I’m concerned, I would like the secretary to act now,” Hirono told HuffPost.
McDonough himself said he believes he has the authority to change this policy during an April hearing before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, which took place before the fall of Roe v. Wade. He danced around saying whether he’d actually do it, though.
“Our statute would allow us to provide abortion services. We do not provide abortion services pursuant to rule-making,” McDonough said. “At the moment, I don’t have anything to report on such a policy change.”
When Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.) followed up to clarify whether the law permits McDonough to change VA policy to allow for veterans to have access to abortions and abortion counseling, he replied: “The law does permit it. Does.”
Frankel, puzzled, asked why he wasn’t already trying to change the policy.
“It’s not been VA policy now for several decades,” McDonough said. “I have just not changed what is existing VA policy across Republican and Democratic administrations for decades.”
“Well, I would urge you to consider that,” Frankel replied.
On Thursday, HuffPost asked Hirono about McDonough not appearing particularly ready to change the VA’s abortion policy during his testimony in the April hearing.
“Well, if you acknowledge you have the authority to do it, expect people like me, Elizabeth [Warren] and others to say ‘Go do it,’” she said.
Warren, similarly, told HuffPost on Friday that just because a rule has been on the books for a long time doesn’t mean it’s a good one.
“For decades and across administrations, women’s reproductive health has too often been an afterthought at the VA,” she said. “With this extremist Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe, the VA must step up and exercise its authority to provide full health care services to all veterans, including abortion.”
If McDonough ultimately did change the VA’s abortion policy, it would still leave the question of what happens to female veterans who live in states that have banned abortions. Nearly 400,000 female veterans of reproductive age live in states that are certain or likely to ban abortions in the wake of Roe v. Wade’s resignation.
But Hirono said that shouldn’t matter, because the health care services provided by the federal government are not something states can regulate.
“We can’t have the states telling the federal government what to do and what kind of services to provide,” said the Hawaii senator, who is also an attorney. “I acknowledge it does raise a legal issue, but it’s one that we should take on.”
She didn’t seem particularly concerned about McDonough’s seeming indifference to the VA’s abortion policy during the April hearing.
“My experience with Secretary McDonough is that he is a doer,” Hirono said. “And so, my hope is that this letter will spur him to act.”
A VA spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment about whether McDonough is considering changing the VA’s abortion policy.