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It’s time for equitable reproductive rights for women veterans

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Women veterans are finally getting access to life-saving reproductive health care, but it is already under threat.

Women represent the fastest-growing cohort of veterans. Today, more than two million living women veterans have fought for and defended our country’s core founding principle: freedom.

It’s why they served, and it is why they continue to serve in greater numbers than ever before. There is no doubt women veterans deserve our “thanks,” but more importantly, they deserve access to comprehensive health care benefits, including reproductive health care. Until now, they have never had such access to care at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

It was not until 1992 that VA was first authorized to provide reproductive health care services to women veterans. However, that original authority excluded pregnancy care, infertility services, and abortion. In 1996, the Veterans Health Care Eligibility Reform Act authorized the VA Secretary to determine what kind of care is “needed” and to design VA’s medical benefits accordingly. VA has since added pregnancy and delivery care to its medical benefits package, and veterans can also now receive certain infertility services at VA.

However, when VA first issued regulations to establish its medical benefits package in 1999, it continued to prohibit both abortions and abortion counseling. These prohibitions meant that women veterans have had far more limited access to reproductive health care as veterans than they did while still serving. And their VA medical providers have been subject to a gag rule — forbidden from discussing all available treatment options with patients experiencing unwanted pregnancies, pregnancy complications, and high-risk pregnancies.

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Airmen salute the American flag as it is lowered during the women’s retreat ceremony at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., April 7, 2016.

While today’s women veterans were wearing the uniform, Department of Defense providers could fully inform them of all potential treatment options, and since 1996, DOD has covered life-saving care through abortion counseling and abortion services in cases of rape, incest, or risk to the life of the service member. VA patients have always been forced to go out on their own, at their own expense, to find reproductive care that has been diminishing or unavailable in many states. In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Dobbs v. Jackson, women veterans found themselves further under threat.

Fortunately, on Sept. 2, VA took action to correct this life-risking injustice and avert imminent and future harm to veterans. VA published an interim final rule, or IFR, that updates its medical benefits package. It removes the department’s longstanding prohibition on providers’ ability to discuss abortion with patients and authorizes VA medical facilities to provide abortions in cases of rape, incest, and the life or health of the veteran — a strong first step that finally puts VA on par with other federal health care programs.

However, this life-saving action is already under threat.

The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs recently held a hearing on women veterans’ access to health care. What we heard from Republican Committee members was appalling.

The remarks made by our colleagues across the aisle during this hearing made it abundantly clear that Republicans have no interest in listening to the voices of women veterans. These Republican members prioritized their personal political views over the rights and health of women veterans.

We think it is past time to listen to what women veterans actually want and need. We have traveled to several states over the last six weeks to host listening sessions with women veterans, and what we heard unequivocally was that women veterans want access to the full spectrum of reproductive health care at VA. We applaud the recent regulatory action taken by VA Secretary Denis McDonough, which is a major step in that direction.

Now, VA can provide the abortion care necessary to save veterans’ lives when their communities and states won’t. The IFR also removes the gag order on what VA doctors can discuss with their women patients, ensuring better equity between men and women who go to VA for care. No such gag order has ever existed for men who receive VA health care, and it is unacceptable and discriminatory to exercise this harmful policy against women veterans who served alongside their brothers in arms.

The IFR will save countless women veterans’ lives and protect their health and reproductive freedoms. VA came to this decision after listening to VA health care providers and veterans across the country — Congress needs to do the same.

Women veterans have courageously served this country. It is past time for us to do right by their service. They fought for our freedom, and they too deserve freedom: freedom to choose, freedom to privacy, and freedom to access the comprehensive health care they deserve.

Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., represents California’s 41st Congressional District. He is the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs chairman.

Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif., represents California’s 26th Congressional District. She is the chairwoman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Health.

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