Veterans Affairs staffers worry they could run afoul of state laws banning abortion services despite department leaders’ promises of legal protection, according to a recent report released by the VA Inspector General.
The concerns come as President Joe Biden’s nominee to serve as VA’s general counsel remains stalled in the Senate over what appear to be political disagreements regarding the department’s abortion policy. Last week, VA Secretary Denis McDonough called the confirmation delay problematic for his entire department.
“We have 680 attorneys working for VA,” he told reporters. “We are constantly working with Congress and the courts, making sure we are carrying out our business consistent with the statutory obligations of the agency. It is meaningful to have a confirmed general counsel in that slot.”
Anjali Chaturvedi, who currently works as a deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department, was nominated by Biden for the top VA legal post in June 2022. Last week, Politico reported that Senate Republicans and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., have blocked the nomination over concerns about VA abortion policies announced in fall 2023.
For the last 13 months, VA medical centers have provided abortion access to veterans and eligible dependents in cases of rape, incest and pregnancies that endanger the life or health of an individual. The move marked the first time VA physicians performed abortions on federal property, and covered individuals in states where local lawmakers had outlawed the procedures.
Conservatives have attacked the policy as an illegal work-around of state laws. McDonough and other VA officials have said the move was needed to ensure critical reproductive care coverage remains available to veterans.
In May, VA officials told committee members that they had provided 54 surgical or medical abortions over the first nine months of the policy. Of those, 10 were cases of rape, incest or imminent danger to the life of a patient. The others fell under the general category of adverse effect on the health of a veteran.
In a statement to Politico, a spokesperson for Manchin said the senator opposes the policy, calling it “a blatant violation of federal law.” But his office would not comment on whether Manchin is intentionally holding up Chaturvedi’s nomination.
Meanwhile, in a report released late last week, officials from the VA Inspector General’s office said the legal uncertainty over the abortion policy fight has left numerous staffers confused about the limits of the policy and worried they’ll face legal consequences even if they follow the rules.
“The need for policy guidance and funding resources was apparent throughout interviews with leaders,” the report stated. “One facility leader stated, ‘everyone wants to know exactly. . . what they should do, not general terms and options for resources, but exactly what we can and can’t do.’”
Officials from VHA’s Office of Women’s Health told the inspector general’s office that they are working on better guidance, but have not yet finished the work.
Both McDonough and Justice Department officials in past statements have asserted that the new abortion policies are legal, and that they will defend VA employees performing their workplace duties from outside interference.
The Inspector General report said that other VA reproductive services — birth control access, in vitro fertilization procedures, erectile dysfunction medication — have caused fewer concerns among staff. They also noted that for now, the abortion concerns remain mostly hypothetical, because of the small number of procedures performed.
“As abortion-related legislation and court rulings continue to evolve, facilities may need to adjust processes in states with laws limiting abortion services,” the report states.
In September, Republican leaders from the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee threatened to subpoena more detailed information on abortions performed at Veterans Affairs facilities, saying that repeated requests by Congress for the data have been ignored in recent months.
Committee officials said they are still awaiting a response from VA leadership.
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.