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Pentagon statement on SCOTUS abortion ruling mischaracterized

June 27, 2022 GMT
U.S. Secretary for Defense Lloyd J. Austin III speaks during a media conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Wednesday, June 15, 2022. Several widely-shared social media posts mischaracterized a statement Austin released on Friday responding to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. The statement did not say the Pentagon would ignore the ruling, as falsely suggested online. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)
U.S. Secretary for Defense Lloyd J. Austin III speaks during a media conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Wednesday, June 15, 2022. Several widely-shared social media posts mischaracterized a statement Austin released on Friday responding to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. The statement did not say the Pentagon would ignore the ruling, as falsely suggested online. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)
U.S. Secretary for Defense Lloyd J. Austin III speaks during a media conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Wednesday, June 15, 2022. Several widely-shared social media posts mischaracterized a statement Austin released on Friday responding to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. The statement did not say the Pentagon would ignore the ruling, as falsely suggested online. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)
U.S. Secretary for Defense Lloyd J. Austin III speaks during a media conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Wednesday, June 15, 2022. Several widely-shared social media posts mischaracterized a statement Austin released on Friday responding to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. The statement did not say the Pentagon would ignore the ruling, as falsely suggested online. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)
U.S. Secretary for Defense Lloyd J. Austin III speaks during a media conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Wednesday, June 15, 2022. Several widely-shared social media posts mischaracterized a statement Austin released on Friday responding to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. The statement did not say the Pentagon would ignore the ruling, as falsely suggested online. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)

CLAIM: The Pentagon stated that any abortion laws enacted as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade will not be recognized.

AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. This mischaracterizes a Friday statement on the ruling from Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III. The statement said the Department of Defense was “examining this decision” and evaluating internal policies to ensure access to reproductive health care for service members, their families and its civilian workforce “as permitted by federal law.” While the statement didn’t elaborate, it did not say the Pentagon would defy the court, nor did it say it would violate any state laws that may be enacted. A Pentagon spokesperson told The Associated Press that the suggestion the department would ignore the ruling is “false.”

THE FACTS: One day after the Supreme Court removed constitutional protections for abortion, misleading posts about the Pentagon’s response spread widely online, suggesting the department stated it would not be recognizing the decision.

While many popular posts did not share a source for the information, some vaguely cited news articles describing a statement by Austin that was published Friday, the day the decision was handed down.

“Nothing is more important to me or to this Department than the health and well-being of our Service members, the civilian workforce and DOD families,” read the statement, which as of Monday was the only official communication from the Pentagon on the matter. “I am committed to taking care of our people and ensuring the readiness and resilience of our Force. 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.

The statement was mischaracterized by the Twitter account BNN Newsroom on Saturday in a since-deleted post that said, “The Pentagon has stated that any abortion laws enacted as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision will not be recognized.” The tweet was shared more than 26,000 times before it was deleted. BNN did not respond to a request for comment.

Later Saturday, the Twitter account Occupy Democrats also misinterpreted the content of the Pentagon release, tweeting, “President Biden’s Pentagon defies the extremist Supreme Court, announces that it will not recognize any anti-abortion laws enacted by states as a result of the Supreme Court’s decision.”

The post was shared more than 17,000 times, and Occupy Democrats followed up with a tweet Sunday linking to an article about Austin’s statement with the caption “source.” However, the brief article also did not suggest the statement meant the Pentagon was defying the court. Occupy Democrats did not return requests for comment.

Pentagon spokesperson Maj. Charlie Dietz told the AP in email and text exchanges that claims the Pentagon is “ignoring the law are completely false.” He pointed to Austin’s statement, which he said was “the only statement made regarding the court cases,” but declined to comment further.

Austin’s statement only specified that officials were “evaluating” current policies. It did not elaborate on what would be considered “reproductive health care” nor did it lay out any proposed changes to such policies. It also only made mention of what would be permitted under federal law, and did not account for laws varying by state following the removal of constitutional protections for abortion. The court’s overturning of the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling is likely to lead to abortion bans in roughly half the states.

Kyndra K. Rotunda, a Chapman University professor who runs the school’s Military and Veterans Law Institute, said the claims circulating online did not appear to be correct, adding that she saw no evidence in the statement, or otherwise, that the military would “refuse to follow state law.”

“I read Secretary Lloyd’s statement to mean no more than what he says: they’re going to explore it further,” Rotunda wrote in an email to the AP. “He, no doubt, realizes the potential problem now that abortions performed by civilian doctors may become sharply limited in certain states.”

TRICARE, the health care program for service members, retirees and their families, covers abortions in cases of rape, incest or if a woman’s life is in danger, through TRICARE-authorized providers, including hospital outpatient departments, freestanding ambulatory surgery centers and individual providers, according to its website.

Information on the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs website outlining VA women’s health services states that “Under current regulation, VA doesn’t provide abortion or abortion counseling.”

Under existing federal law, a military member can seek an abortion outside of a military facility, in accordance with state law where they are located, but the Pentagon will not fund or perform the procedure except in cases of rape, incest or if a woman’s life is in danger, Rotunda explained.

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This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.