If the president is serious about protecting reproductive health care, this is one way he can show it.
If you ask who is the United States biggest employer, people might assume its a corporate behemoth like Amazon. But the federal government actually employs the most people and, like any other company, it has a duty to look out for its employees. Now, Justice Department employees say part of that duty requires giving federal employees time off for out-of-state abortions.
On Wednesday, members of the Justice Department’s Gender Equality Network wrote a letter to the Biden administration urging it to “swiftly consider” providing administrative leave to “obtain reproductive health care services not available in their own state due to restrictive laws.”
With the Supreme Court set to overturn Roe v. Wade in the next few weeks, about half of the U.S. would outlaw abortion. A post-Roe America can already be seen by looking at states like Texas, where restrictive laws have forced pregnant people to seek care elsewhere. Wendy Brown-Spaulding, the development director for Whole Woman’s Health Alliance, told The Texas Tribune that “right now, we’re already seeing about 30% of our clients in our Minnesota clinic come from Texas.”
The Gender Equality Network warned warned that about 150,000 federal employees in Texas and Mississippi have little access to abortion. If Roe is overturned, 227,000 additional employees in 11 other states could lose access, too.
In its letter, GEN noted that federal employees were given administrative leave to obtain COVID vaccinations for their “health, safety, and physical and mental well-being.” It added, “Likewise, the administration should be able to provide federal workers with a reasonable amount of administrative leave to access reproductive health care for their health, safety, and physical and mental well-being.”
This proposal isn’t coming out of nowhere. Several large companies like Amazon and Citigroup are already taking action to help employees access reproductive services. Earlier this week, Starbucks also announced it will cover travel expenses for U.S. employees who cannot access abortions and gender-confirmation procedures within 100 miles of their home.
Providing this administrative leave would put the federal government at odds with a number of state governments, The New York Times noted, in states where abortion is heavily restricted. Honestly, though, so what? In President Biden’s (admittedly weak) response to the leak of the initial draft majority opinion by Justice Samuel Alito, he wrote, “I believe a woman’s right to choose is fundamental” and “it will fall on our nation’s elected officials at all levels of government” to protect that right. This is one way he can do that.
And it’s definitely within the federal government’s power. As Stephen I. Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law, told the Times, “Employers can choose to provide accommodation, and the federal government is allowed to act like any other employer to a degree.”
It’s unreasonable to expect employees — federal or otherwise — to tap into already limited vacation or sick days to access reproductive health care. There are some concerns that granting leave for abortions would violate the Hyde Amendment. However, the GEN argued that the “Hyde Amendment ... restricts the use of federal funding in most cases for an abortion procedure itself but does not impose restrictions on ancillary accommodations.”