(Reuters) – The U.S. government will provide abortion services for the first time ever to veterans in cases of rape or incest or when the pregnancy puts the life of the woman at risk, even in states that have banned or restricted the practice, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said on Friday.
The agency said in a policy document that it decided to offer abortions to veterans in response to a wave of U.S. states enacting bans and restrictions on such services since the Supreme Court ended the nationwide right to abortion in June.
The department determined that change was needed “to protect the lives and health of veterans” and the rule was meant to “avert imminent and future harm” to veterans.
“This is a patient safety decision,” Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement.
Representative Mark Takano, the Democratic chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, applauded the decision, which he said was part of the department’s responsibility to serve the needs of veterans, including providing “equitable and unrestricted access to the full spectrum of reproductive health care.”
Mike Bost, the ranking Republican on the committee, sharply criticized the new policy, which he said was “illegal.”
“Abortion is wrong, and Congress prohibited VA from providing it decades ago,” Mr. Bost said in a statement. “I oppose it and am already working to put a stop to it.”
The abortion issue is expected to play a consequential role in gubernatorial and state legislative races around the country this fall. Democrats aim to leverage anger over the Supreme Court’s recent overturning of Roe v. Wade, which guaranteed American women access to abortion services, ahead of the Nov. 8 midterm elections.
Since the court ruling, 11 states have enacted near-total bans on abortion at all stages of pregnancy in force: Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Texas.
In Texas, abortion providers could face up to lifetime imprisonment for helping patients terminate a pregnancy. In Oklahoma, where abortion was already banned with few exceptions, a law that took effect Sept. 1 makes providing an abortion a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $100,000 fine.
Veterans Affairs health care providers will determine whether the pregnancy is a risk to the life and health of the veteran on a case-by-case basis, the department said.
In cases of rape or incest, self-reporting by a veteran would constitute sufficient evidence to justify the abortion, it said.
The new policy removes or changes some provisions in the medical benefits package for veterans that excluded abortion services until now, according to a document submitted to the Office of the Federal Register as an “interim final rule.”
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