Veterans Affairs officials on Friday issued new memos clarifying the process for staffers to request religious exemptions to providing abortion-related services at department facilities but still emphasizing the importance of the resources as part of veterans’ array of medical options.
“Physicians, residents, fellows, and medical students may, for any reason, opt out of performing induced abortions, receiving or providing training in the performance of induced abortions, providing referrals for such training or such abortions, or making arrangements for training or performance of induced abortions,” a fact sheet accompanying the new guidelines stated.
Officials said the move does not represent a policy change, but rather a more formal outlining of opt-out rules in place since last September, when VA leaders announced they would begin providing abortion services for the first time.
“From day one, Secretary [Denis] McDonough has made clear to all employees that their religious beliefs are protected here at VA,” department press secretary Terrence Hayes said in a statement. “VA continues to provide accommodations for VA employees who wish to opt out of providing abortion counseling or services.”
The decision to provide access to abortions to veterans and eligible dependents in cases of rape, incest and pregnancies that endanger the life or health of an individual came in the wake of last summer’s Supreme Court decision that overturned the 1973 Roe vs. Wade ruling which legalized abortion nationwide.
Since then, numerous states have started to place limits on health care workers from providing abortions.
VA officials have said that because they are on federal property, their operations are not bound by state laws. They’ve said that abortion counseling and access to abortion procedures is needed to provide a full-range of reproductive health services to veteran patients.
Department leaders have not provided information on how many abortions have been conducted at VA sites in the past four months, or how many staffers have requested religious exemptions to the procedures.
Under the staff opt-out rules in the new memos, employees who voice religious objections to providing abortion services must be granted accommodations. Supervisors must first attempt to assign the work to other staff. If that isn’t practical, objecting employees may be reassigned to other responsibilities.
Last month, a Veterans Affairs health care employee working in Texas sued the department over the abortion policy, saying the change violates her religious beliefs as well as state law. She is looking to block all abortion-related activities at the Olin E. Teague Veterans’ Center in Temple, Texas.
Republican members of Congress — who gained majority control of the House earlier this month — have also promised to challenge the VA abortion decisions in coming months.
In response, VA officials have said they are confident in the legal basis of their moves.
“We came to this decision after listening to VA health care providers and veterans across the country, who sounded the alarm that abortion restrictions are creating a medical emergency for those we serve,” Dr. Shereef Elnahal, VA’s Under Secretary for Health, said in a statement.
“Offering this care will save Veterans’ health and lives, and there is nothing more important than that.”
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.