Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Tuesday said there will be “powerful effects” on military readiness if Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) continues to hold up more than 150 Pentagon nominees over an abortion policy in the Defense Department.
Austin told the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) the U.S. is facing “one of the most complex times” with foreign adversaries and approving the Pentagon’s nominees is “absolutely critical in terms of the impact on the force.”
“Not approving the recommendations for promotions actually creates a ripple effect in the force that makes us far less ready than we need to be,” the defense secretary said. “The effects are cumulative and it will affect families, it will affect kids going to schools … it’s a powerful effect and it will impact our readiness.”
Tuberville followed through with a promise to delay civilian and flag officer nominations in the Pentagon on March 8, protesting a new DOD policy providing leave and reimbursement for servicemembers who need to travel to get an abortion.
The GOP senator’s hold forces the Democrat-controlled Senate to consider and vote on each nomination rather than approving them in batches, dragging out the process.
Tuberville, a member of the SASC, has said he will continue to stymie the nominations until the Defense Department rescinds the new policy.
On Tuesday, he vowed to prevent the military from becoming “politicized,” arguing the new Pentagon policy circumvented congressional authority by forcing the government to pay for abortions.
“This is about not forcing the taxpayers of this country to fund abortion. That’s been a bipartisan consensus for more than 40 years,” Tuberville said. “The American taxpayer [is] on the hook to pay for travel and time off for elective abortion.”
The Defense Department allows for abortions in the case of rape or incest or if the health and life of the woman is endangered.
In the wake of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade last year, the Pentagon vowed to continue to allow abortions at military treatment facilities, including in more than a dozen states with more restrictive laws.
Protesters for and against abortion demonstrate outside the Supreme Court on June 27 in the aftermath of its decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. (Peter Afriyie)
In February, the Defense Department updated its policies to include the reimbursement and leave procedures. Previously, service members would pay out of pocket for travel costs at a civilian hospital.
Republicans have blasted the policy, including SASC ranking member Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), and have questioned the Defense Department’s position that not facilitating some abortion access could impact readiness.
Conversely, a group of 36 Senate Democrats and two Independent senators sent a letter to the Pentagon on Monday expressing support for the new abortion policy.
Austin on Tuesday said nearly 1 in 5 servicemembers of U.S. troops are women who don’t get to choose where they are stationed — close to 80,000 of them are in states with limited reproductive health care access.
The defense chief also said the new policy is “based on strong legal ground.”
— Updated at 4:08 p.m.