The Pentagon has quietly lifted a longstanding ban that prevented troops and civilians from searching for abortion-related terms on the department’s computer networks, a move that follows the Supreme Court’s landmark decision to overturn Roe v. Wade last month.
The department had banned abortion-related content, as well as other topics, under a policy dating to 2010, “to maximize available bandwidth for mission purposes,” Pentagon spokesman Navy Lt. Cmdr. Tim Gorman said in an email Tuesday to Military Times.
Such a sea change to what the department’s more than 3 million users can access on their computers came after POLITICO reported on May 3 that the court was slated to overturn Roe, but before the opinion was released on June 24.
“We determined in early June that we should absolutely allow content categorized as abortion (to be accessible on DOD networks) based on the healthcare aspects related to the category,” Gorman said. He added that the department continually evaluates content categories that are blocked on department networks.
Military Times began asking about the policy last month after a military officer said he had tried to access the non-profit Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America sites on his government computer to get information for his troops and received a blocked notification.
Gorman did not provide answers to follow-up questions.
The department’s chief information officer, John Sherman, “directed that content related to access to abortion services be unblocked and this change is currently underway across DOD organizations,” Gorman added. “Additionally, DoD CIO is reviewing the entire policy regrading internet access to various sites and topics related to healthcare access and other issues for appropriate updates.”
Officials did not respond to requests for comment regarding the date of the policy change or other banned categories.
The officer who requested anonymity told Military Times he was blocked from accessing Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America websites as he sought information for his troops regarding bans on abortions after six weeks.
“I guess deployed (troops) or those without access to personal internet are not able to be informed,” he said.
The officer said he was “stunned” when the sites came up blocked, and that his troops have questions about what the overturning of Roe v. Wade will mean, “especially those who have been previously stationed in Mississippi.”
Mississippi lawmakers passed a law banning most abortions and the state is home to at least six military bases.
The officer and other military sources who Googled “abortion” on their work computers for Military Times reported last week that some sites were not blocked. However, the officer said that not being able to access Planned Parenthood or NARAL Pro-Choice America gave him pause.
“All the DoD officials said they were going to do all they can to ensure we had the info we needed with the new ruling and laws,” the officer said.
Gorman said in a follow-up statement to Military Times that the department is working its way “through all DOD networks now to ensure that restriction is lifted uniformly.”
As the Pentagon seeks to protects its uniformed and civilian employees from prosecution following the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the officer said he is hearing concerns from his troops nonetheless.
“They may be stationed in these states that don’t allow abortions, and that they will have to ask COs for permission, pay for travel, take their limited leave, and be judged around the command,” the officer said. “And then even from men who are scared for their daughters and wives being forced to move with them to places like Texas.”
A friend’s wife, the officer said, “is terrified” of getting stationed where she won’t have access to services, such as Planned Parenthood.
DOD’s lifting of abortion searches on its networks comes as the Pentagon scrambles to parse out what the overturning of Roe means for troops and families.
And while the ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that overturned the Roe precedent doesn’t change anything regarding legalities of obtaining an abortion covered by military health insurance, it does raise questions about their availability and the added effort that securing legal abortions may entail.
“I am committed to taking care of our people and ensuring the readiness and resilience of our force,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement on June 24, the day Roe was overturned. “The Department is examining this decision closely and evaluating our policies to ensure we continue to provide seamless access to reproductive health care as permitted by federal law.”
Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at [email protected].