Why Congress Must Pass the MARCH Act: The Impact of Abortion Bans on Servicemembers and Their Dependents

Unless you live under a rock, you have likely heard that the right to abortion is hanging on by a thread, with the Supreme Court positioned to overturn the constitutional right to abortion any day now in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health case. If the Supreme Court finalizes its draft opinion, overturning Roe v. Wade, it will devastate many communities, particularly those with the fewest resources and least access to abortion care. Among these communities are military servicemembers and their families, who already face numerous barriers to care because of existing harmful federal abortion bans in the military.  

In these uncertain times, folks are looking to the federal government to find solutions…which brings me to the military health care system and TRICARE, one of the largest federal health care programs in the country, covering 9.6 million servicemembers and their families. Congress must pass the MARCH Act (Military Access to Reproductive Care and Health for Military Servicemembers Act), which would eliminate military abortion bans and expand access to abortion for military servicemembers and their dependents. 

Federal law currently bans TRICARE coverage of abortion procedures and bans military treatment facilities from providing abortions, except in cases of rape, incest, or to save the person’s life. As a result, servicemembers and dependents are forced to go outside of the military and pay out of pocket for abortion care, all while navigating the maze of state bans and restrictions on abortion access—which will only get worse as dozens of states prepare to ban abortion. Servicemembers seeking care off-base are often limited in their ability to do so due to restrictions on leave or travel imposed on their unit, or fear of needing to disclose their abortion and face retaliation. The cost of an abortion can also be a barrier, especially for junior servicemembers with a base pay of only $22,000 a year. Additionally, many servicemembers have limited or no access to a car. These multiple, compounding costs and delays undermine abortion access and inflict both financial and emotional distress on servicemembers and military families forced to access care outside the military—meaning that some will be forced to continue a pregnancy against their will.  

We know that abortion has never been accessible for all people. For those undervalued, under resourced, and pushed to the margins by systems not designed to support them, the right  to abortion has never guaranteed access. This is especially true for Black, Latina, Indigenous, Asian American and Pacific Islander, young, and low-income communities. The fall of the constitutional right to abortion will have the greatest impact on these communities, as resources are already limited due to structural racism and classism. Notably, nearly half (48.3%) of Active Duty servicemembers are part of these communities. So not only do many servicemembers and dependents bear the brunt of these structural barriers to abortion care outside of the military, they face additional barriers to care due to military abortion bans. 

The MARCH Act is critical to protecting and expanding abortion access during this crisis. The MARCH Act would finally eliminate the harmful military abortion bans and has the potential to change the landscape of abortion access for servicemembers and dependents. Truly, the numbers are wild. Over 400,000 women and an estimated several thousand transgender men/nonbinary people serve on Active Duty or reserves in the Armed Forces. And as of 2020, nearly half (4.71 million or 49.06%) of all Military Health Service (MHS) beneficiaries around the world are women. More than 1.3 million female MHS beneficiaries are living in states that have enacted laws to ban abortion if Roe is overturned. The TLDR: nearly 1 million women of reproductive age who rely on MHS will be living in states likely to ban abortion once Roe v. Wade is overturned! 

The MARCH Act is one piece of what is needed to make abortion affordable and available for servicemembers and their families. We also need to pass other bills that would do that for folks across the country, including the EACH Act and the Women’s Health Protection Act 

The leaked draft opinion tells us that the loss of the constitutional right to abortion is not a hypothetical threat. It is real and it could happen any day now. While servicemembers and military families, especially those with fewer resources, will still face significant barriers to care, elimination of the military abortion bans is one important action towards improving access. Congress must pass the MARCH Act to protect and expand abortion access for servicemembers and their families immediately.