With legal issues seemingly covered for now, Veterans Affairs leaders are shifting focus to physical security concerns for staffers involved with providing abortion services at department medical centers, to ensure don’t become a target for protests or violence.
During a Defense Writers Group discussion on Monday, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said he is not presuming that VA hospitals and clinics will face threats, but that officials are taking “appropriate precautions” ahead of any potential trouble.
“We’re working closely with the VA police force,” he told reporters. “We have the largest police force in the federal government, and we want to make sure that we’re taking prudent and appropriate steps to protect our veterans and our facilities and our providers.”
McDonough announced mid-September that VA staffers had performed the first abortion at a department medical facility under new authorities announced by leadership earlier in September.
Under those rules, VA medical staff will offer abortion access to veterans and eligible dependents in cases of rape, incest and pregnancies that endanger the life or health of an individual. All veterans will also be able to discuss abortion options and access with VA counselors.
Administration officials said the move was needed in the wake of numerous states outlawing the procedure in recent months, a response to the June decision by the Supreme Court to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.
But conservative lawmakers have vowed legal and legislative action to stop the procedures, arguing that the decision violates existing federal law.
Last week, Department of Justice officials backed the administration’s belief that VA staffers can legally offer the services — even when states where abortion is illegal — and said they will provide legal defense if necessary to protect those employees.
McDonough called that a strong message of support to the VA workforce. He also downplayed Republican threats concerning abortions at VA, calling it part of a range of reproductive health services that a critical to veterans health.
“There has been enough confusion among our providers about the services that we provide,” he said. “For example, we place about 10,000 IUDs a year for veterans. We provide fertility assistance for veterans. We provide birth control assistance for veterans.
“We have 300,000 women veterans of childbearing age who now rely on us for their health care, and that number will grow in coming years.”
Department officials would not give any details of the abortion performed last week, citing privacy concerns. They also would not say where it took place or whether local laws prohibited the medical procedure.
VA Under Secretary for Health Dr. Shereef Elnahal told lawmakers he expects about 1,000 abortions to be performed by VA annually.
The department will also connect veterans seeking the service to outside providers in states where the procedure is still legal.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.