Editor’s Note: Michael Bennet, a Democrat, is the senior US senator from Colorado. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Days after the Supreme Court ended the constitutional right to an abortion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, I received a call from a former officer in the US Air Force. Like most Americans, she worried about how the ruling could harm the health, privacy and freedom of American women. But she raised another issue that is equally deserving of our attention – the harm to our national security.
The number of women enlisting in the military has grown significantly over time. They now represent roughly a fifth of the total force and over a third of our civilian workforce. But when women volunteer for active duty, they, like any other service member, don’t choose where to serve. The Pentagon decides that.
Before Dobbs, our troops had some assurance that, wherever the Pentagon sent them, they would at least have minimal access to reproductive care as a protected constitutional right. Not anymore. The Supreme Court stripped away that right, without grappling in its written opinion with the harm it would inflict on service women in states with little or no access to reproductive care.
Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, 18 states have rushed to ban or limit abortion access. Ten have no exceptions, even for rape or incest. Meanwhile, radical state legislators have introduced bills restricting the freedom of women to travel from one state to another for reproductive care. And several states – from Iowa to Nebraska – have only begun to chip away at a woman’s right to choose.
Texas, home to Fort Hood – one of the largest military bases in the US, has posted $10,000 bounties for residents who successfully sue anyone who has helped in accessing or performing an abortion after it is no longer legal.
Alabama, home to six military bases, has threatened doctors and nurses with up to 99 years in jail for performing an abortion. The state’s attorney general even suggested using a chemical endangerment law – which is designed to protect kids from meth – to prosecute women for ending their pregnancies with a medication abortion pill.
In Florida, which is home to 21 military bases, Gov. Ron DeSantis just endorsed a six-week abortion ban. He may be unaware – or may not even care – that a third of women don’t even know they’re pregnant until around six weeks.
These cruel policies are part of an escalating war on access to reproductive care, and we cannot allow our military readiness to become collateral damage.
After Dobbs, it’s not hard to see why a woman might think twice before enlisting if the Pentagon could station her in a state that bans abortion – even if she is a victim of rape or incest. The former Air Force officer who called me understood immediately how it harms military readiness to force service women to travel far from their base to access care, to say nothing of the cost to their privacy when every single person in their units finds out about it.
A recent study from RAND Corporation found that Dobbs could increase attrition, decrease readiness and harm military recruiting. And that’s after the Pentagon just had its worst recruiting year since the Vietnam War ended.
To help address these challenges, the Pentagon recently announced three policies. The first two authorize travel allowances and absences without leave for service women to access reproductive care if it’s unavailable in their duty station. This matters because service members may not be able to afford to travel, which is why the Pentagon covers travel for other procedures that aren’t locally available.
The third policy gives service members more time before they must tell their commanding officer they’re pregnant, providing women in uniform more space and privacy to decide if they want to carry a pregnancy to term – a decision that’s become a lot more complicated after Dobbs.
I applaud the Biden administration for these steps to protect access to care for the service women who protect us, but the administration should go further. In the wake of Dobbs, the Pentagon still has no policy to account for the harm of moving a base from a state that protects access to reproductive care to a state that does not.
For example, the Pentagon is now considering whether to move the US Space Command from Colorado, which protects abortion access, to Alabama, which criminalizes it. Except in the most extreme cases – rape, incest and life of the mother – service members at the new base would have to travel out of state for the reproductive care they need.
When the Pentagon makes basing decisions, like this, some of the factors it considers include number of available parking spaces, housing affordability and area construction costs. What’s not on the list? Whether the state prohibits abortion, imprisons doctors who perform them or turns its residents into bounty hunters against women.
Get our free weekly newsletter
Why should basing decisions turn on how much it costs to house a family, but not whether that family has the freedom to plan its future? It is absurd.
Securing access to reproductive care is among the greatest civil rights struggles of our times, and President Joe Biden has an opportunity to lead – as former President Harry Truman did when he ordered the desegregation of our armed forces. Today, at a minimum, that means creating a policy to account for access to reproductive care in the Pentagon’s basing and personnel decisions.
Nine months after Dobbs it can be easy to feel powerless as one state after another takes aim at the right to choose. But here is one specific way that Biden can hold the line, strengthen our readiness and defend the freedom of service women who spend every day defending ours.
Clarification: An earlier version of the piece did not fully account for abortion access on US military bases. It has been updated to reflect the Defense Department’s policy of providing abortions on base in cases of rape, incest and life of the mother.