The chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee is threatening to subpoena the Department of Veterans Affairs for detailed data on its year-old policy of providing abortions to veterans in certain cases.
The VA has twice given lawmakers top-line numbers of how many abortions the department has performed. Most recently, in May, the VA said it had done 54 abortions between September 2022, when the policy was implemented, and April 30.
But Republicans on the House Veterans Affairs Committee had requested quarterly updates on the data, which have not come. They also wanted a more detailed breakdown of the information, which the VA has declined to provide, citing privacy concerns.
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“The American taxpayers funding these abortion procedures at VA deserve to know how VA is carrying out the” policy, committee Chairman Mike Bost, R-Ill., and Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, R-Iowa, who chairs the committee’s health subpanel, wrote in a letter Thursday to VA Secretary Denis McDonough.
“Failure to provide the requested information to the committee by Sept. 30, 2023, will force the committee to consider all tools at the committee’s disposal, including scheduling a vote to issue a subpoena for the requested information,” they added in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by Military.com ahead of its release.
The VA told Military.com it received the letter and “will respond directly” to Bost and Miller-Meeks.
After last year’s Supreme Court ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that allowed states to ban abortion, the VA announced it would, for the first time, offer abortions in cases where the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, or the life or health of the mother is endangered by the pregnancy.
Republicans have particularly bristled at the “health” reason because it appears to go beyond the parameters of the so-called Hyde Amendment, which bans specific government funding from going toward abortion except in cases of rape, incest or where the life of the mother is at risk.
The VA, which maintains it is not one of the government agencies subject to the Hyde Amendment, has not publicly defined what it considers a health concern that would qualify a veteran to receive an abortion.
“A woman veteran with chronic conditions may require additional monitoring during pregnancy, but that shouldn’t immediately qualify her for an abortion,” Bost and Miller-Meeks argued in their letter. “Further, it is extremely disconcerting that a veteran may qualify for an abortion due to mental health concerns, and yet that veteran is not required to undergo any mental health evaluation or treatment prior to, or in the aftermath of, an abortion.”
Of the 54 abortions the VA had performed as of April, 44 were because of the health of the mother, according to a copy of the VA’s May letter obtained by Military.com. Two were because the life of the mother was at risk, and eight were because the pregnancy resulted from a rape. Most of the abortions were done with pills — 36 were medication abortions compared to 18 surgical abortions.
Republicans also argue the VA policy violates a 1992 law that directed the department to provide reproductive health care except for “infertility services, abortions or pregnancy care,” unless that care is needed because of a service-connected condition.
Supporters of the VA policy maintain that it is allowed under a 1996 law that requires the department to give “needed” medical care to veterans.
In January and in March, Bost and Miller-Meeks requested the VA provide documents detailing how many abortions have been performed at each Veteran Integrated Service Network; the trimester in which each abortion was done; and, in cases where the abortion was done for health concerns, what the health issue was.
While the VA responded by providing top-line numbers, it argued providing as much detail as the lawmakers requested would allow someone to identify the patients who got an abortion.
“Methods for probabilistic matching keep improving, and commercial entities have amassed large datasets that can facilitate the process,” McDonough wrote in the May letter. “As a result of these more sophisticated techniques, nominally de-identified data can be layered with other datasets to reveal sensitive information, including the identity of individuals, especially when the number of potential matches becomes appreciably smaller.”
In their letter Thursday, Bost and Miller-Meeks said they consider protecting patient privacy “an utmost priority,” but that the information they’re requesting is necessary to decide whether the committee needs to take up “targeted legislation.”
“Committee staff have reiterated our request for this information in weekly phone calls with VA,” they wrote. “We have yet to receive any information regarding what documented conditions led to a ‘health’ determination, which we consider an important element since VA notes the largest number of abortions performed were because of ‘health’ reasons. As of Sept. 14, 2023, we are still waiting for an adequate response to our letters.”
— Rebecca Kheel can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on X @reporterkheel.
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