Chairwoman Wasserman Schultz Statement at Challenges Facing Veterans in Accessing Fertility Services Hearing

2021-03-09 10:17

Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), Chair of the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, delivered the following remarks at the Subcommittee's hearing on the Challenges Facing Veterans in Accessing Fertility Services:

Today we welcome two witnesses who can shed some light on challenges that many veterans face in starting a family, and the gross injustice and inequity of the current policy.

We are joined by Barbara Collura of RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association, the leading patient advocacy organization for those experiencing infertility.

And Maureen Elias of the Paralyzed Veterans of America, the only congressionally chartered veterans service organization dedicated solely for the benefit and representation of veterans with spinal cord injury or disease.

Both of these witnesses have worked with veterans and heard their stories, and have been working hard to break down barriers to fertility treatment for veterans and others.

We are holding this hearing today to discuss an issue that is deeply personal to many veterans, as well as to me.

1 in 8 couples have trouble getting pregnant or sustaining a pregnancy.

That’s about 12% of women of reproductive age.

And among veterans, those numbers are likely even higher.

A VA study found that just among post-9/11 veterans, 15.8% of women and 13.8% of men reported experiencing infertility.

Fortunately, advances in medical technology have given these veterans options where before they had none.

Improvements in medical care mean that more and more veterans are surviving combat injuries that may have killed them in prior generations.

They are returning home, transitioning out of the military, and trying to begin their lives anew.

For many veterans, that means starting a family.

Yet for too many veterans, they find that those injuries or illnesses, as a result of their military service, may make it difficult for them to conceive a child or carry a pregnancy to term.

In Fiscal Year 2017, this Committee made great progress toward helping those veterans by including, for the first time, language that enabled the VA to provide in vitro fertilization, or IVF, services.

This was a tremendous step forward compared to the dark ages of the years before. But as the policy has been implemented, it has become clear that there are gaps, exclusions, and outright injustices that are stopping veterans from accessing the care that they need.

The current policy assumes a, frankly, antiquated approach on how to make or build a family.

It limits the IVF benefit to only married, opposite-sex couples, who are able to use their own sperm, eggs, and uterus.

That’s a pretty narrow population that doesn’t reflect the world we live in today.

Many veterans have injuries or illnesses that prevent them from being able to use their own eggs or sperm to conceive, or to be able to carry a pregnancy to term on their own.

Those veterans turn to VA for help, and the door is shut in their face, because current policy does not allow them to use donated sperm or eggs – even if the veteran obtains it at their own cost.

This is despite the fact that VA will allow veterans to use donated sperm for intrauterine insemination, but when it comes to IVF – which for many veterans is the only option – different, unfair rules apply.

To be clear, opposite sex couples are denied the ability to use donated sperm or eggs for IVF, which is inexplicable and not justifiable, but same-sex couples are blatantly discriminated against by this policy.

Married same-sex couples are denied treatment even if they have service-connected infertility, because they would need to use donated sperm or a gestational surrogate.

For a same-sex couple, where one or even both partners are a veteran who has served their country, to be denied access to this health care treatment is frankly outrageous.

That’s not the only drastic inequity with the current policy.

In order to access the IVF benefit, the couple must be legally married.

This is not a requirement for any of the other fertility treatments offered by VA.

It’s certainly not a requirement for couples conceiving children without assisted reproductive technology.

Ancient societal norms don’t reflect modern families or modern society, and there is no reason why there should be this kind of limitation on a veteran’s ability to start a family after dedicating so much of their life to military service.

That’s not to mention the challenges veterans have in proving their infertility is service-connected, as well as in learning about this benefit and working their way through the system to begin with.

On top of all of that, this benefit is only provided from year to year, leaving uncertainty hanging over the heads of veterans over whether this benefit will continue to be there for them.

Clearly, there is more we must do to ensure that no veteran, who was willing to sacrifice their life for this country, has to sacrifice fulfilling their desire to be a parent and have a family.

Veterans who have service-connected infertility need equitable, non-discriminatory access to reproductive services.

This issue, as I said, is personal to me.

I myself suffered from infertility, even at what many would consider a young age, at just 29 years old, and my doctor recommended IVF to me and my husband.

We were fortunate that we qualified for an IVF drug trial, and that it led to the birth of our twins, who are now healthy young adults. Later, I gave birth to our youngest daughter without fertility treatment.

We were told at the time that my only way to conceive successfully would be through IVF. I cannot imagine the feeling of desperation and sorrow I would have had if I were a veteran and the VA barred us from our dream of starting our family – not because it wasn’t possible, but because the government I served unjustly decided who gets to become a parent, and how.

I want every veteran – every American – to have access to the same opportunity I had.

Having a family is a natural desire, and for those who want it, we shouldn’t keep putting up additional barriers.

It is tragic in the United States today that this dream eludes so many of us, when we certainly have the technology that makes it possible.

We just need to make sure we have the policies that make it possible as well.

Let me close by saying that infertility is a painful issue, and worse, it is one that for so long was just whispered, something that you didn’t talk about out loud.

I think it is a positive sign that we can not only talk about it, but productively discuss the ways in which we need to address challenges that prevent people from accessing the treatment they need.

117th Congress