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Fact Check: Sen. Tommy Tuberville overestimates number of abortions military women would seek out under new DOD policies, researchers say

<i>Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images</i><br/>Despite frequent claims from Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama that new Pentagon reproductive health policies would result in thousands more abortions a year
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images
Despite frequent claims from Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama that new Pentagon reproductive health policies would result in thousands more abortions a year

By Haley Britzky, CNN

(CNN) — Despite frequent claims from Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama that new Pentagon reproductive health policies would result in thousands more abortions a year, the number estimated by a study Tuberville himself cites is far lower, though nearly impossible to actually know.

Tuberville is protesting new Pentagon reproductive health policies, which provide a travel allowance to service members and their dependents who must cross state lines to get an abortion because of where they are stationed. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade last year, many states had so-called “trigger laws” go into place, immediately restricting abortion access. Tuberville is holding up hundreds of senior military nominations that must be confirmed by the Senate to protest the policies.

The Defense Department said earlier this year that because service members cannot choose what states they are stationed in, the Pentagon would provide up to three weeks of leave and a travel allowance for service members and dependents who have to travel out of state to receive care. The leave also applied to people who were traveling to receive other reproductive health care not covered by the military, including in vitro fertilization (IVF) and intrauterine insemination (IUI).

In a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in December, Tuberville referenced a briefing he said he received from the acting assistant secretary of defense for health affairs. The briefing, he said, stated that the new policies “would increase DoD subsidized abortions by as much as 4,100 per year. That estimate does not include dependents, which your policy also intends to cover, who might seek assistance in obtaining an abortion.”

The new policies providing a travel allowance to receive an abortion do apply to dependents. Tuberville’s office told CNN that the number he is referencing came from a study by the RAND Corporation, a research organization which often conducts research on behalf of the DOD.

Tuberville repeated a similar claim on Monday, during an interview on CNN’s “The Source with Kaitlan Collins.”

“We’ve done a couple of dozen abortions in the military for the last 40 years, a couple dozen a year,” he said. “Now we’re going to have 4,000 to 5,000 a year because this new rule, this new supposedly law that this administration’s pushing through. So let’s think about the unborn.”

Facts First: Tuberville’s claim is incorrect. He is misleadingly comparing the number of covered abortions provided by DOD health facilities with an estimate of how many women in the military receive abortions outside of those health facilities, have ectopic pregnancies or still births annually. RAND researchers, one of whom was directly involved in the study Tuberville cites, told CNN that Tuberville is significantly overestimating the number of women in the military who would take advantage of the new DOD policies.

The survey being referenced by Tuberville was conducted in 2020 and sponsored by the Defense Department, according to Dr. Sarah Meadows, a senior sociologist at RAND.

While it’s not possible to know exactly how many people would use the Pentagon’s new policies to be reimbursed for travel to receive an abortion, the estimates calculated through the 2020 survey provide a window into how many women in uniform may seek out abortion care.

In the survey, Meadows said they asked women who had been pregnant in the last 12 months how their pregnancy ended – in a birth, miscarriage, or “other.” The “other” category included ectopic pregnancies, still births and abortions. Meadows said other data on pregnancies led researchers to believe the bulk of the pregnancies marked as ending in “other” were abortions.

That number was then taken by RAND and applied to the total population of women in the military, which gave them an estimated range of how many pregnancies of members of the military would end in one of the “other” categories.

“The other thing to keep in mind,” Meadows explained, “is that’s total. That is every active-duty service woman in every state in the continental United States, to include Alaska and Hawaii. So, of those, only a certain percentage will need to travel to receive abortion care … So, people use those numbers, but it’s really only like half, 46% actually, of those women who are seeking an abortion will need to travel to get it based on where they live.”

Even Meadow’s estimate of about 2,000 assumes all of the women who would need to travel to get an abortion would take advantage of the Pentagon’s new policies, which even she said is not likely. Previous data shows that a “not insubstantial percentage” of women don’t feel comfortable even getting contraceptive care through military health facilities, Meadows said.

“They don’t want the military health system to know what they’re doing, essentially,” she said. “So, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that … there’s still this barrier, that you’re going to have to go to your commander and say, ‘I need this, you know, administrative leave,’ and then I have to process the paperwork to get reimbursed for travel and my hotel and per diem.”

RAND senior political scientist Dr. Kyleanne Hunter added that many women in the military are barely comfortable telling their commanders of planned pregnancies because of long-existing stigma.

“What we do know as well from other research surveys, but also a lot of focus group research that has been done in the past, is that service women are often very uncomfortable even telling commanders about pregnancies that are wanted,” she said. “And there’s a lot of stigma around just reporting pregnancies – a planned, wanted pregnancy. So again, I think that we don’t have an estimate, but it’s a very reasonable assumption that having to go through the process of getting the travel claim will provide an additional barrier.”

Both Hunter and Meadows pushed back on the idea that the Pentagon’s new policy was providing more abortions as Tuberville has claimed. It is “a factually incorrect statement to say that they’re paying for abortion,” Meadows said.

The Defense Department is not allowed to provide abortions in DOD health facilities outside of three exceptions – in the cases of rape or incest, and when the life of the mother is at risk. A defense official told reporters last year that between 2016 and 2021, a total of 91 covered abortions were performed – coming out to roughly 15 a year.

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