Debate outlined GOP presidential candidates’ perilous divisions on abortion

To be sure, all of them say they're pro-life.

Republican presidential candidates, from left, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum stand at their podiums during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by FOX News Channel, Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

(RNS) — The abortion issue elicited some notable disagreements at last Wednesday’s Republican presidential candidates debate in Milwaukee.

Fox News host Martha MacCallum got the ball rolling by pointing out that voters in red as well as blue states have approved referendums supporting abortion rights. She then asked former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley what she would say about this to her party and her state, where a six-week abortion ban has just been confirmed — “especially the impact on women suburban voters across this country.”

After describing herself as “unapologetically pro-life,” Haley delivered herself of a general statement that can charitably be called incoherent:

Having said that, we need to stop demonizing this issue. This is talking about the fact that unelected justices didn’t need to decide something this personal, because it’s personal for every woman and man. Now, it’s been put in the hands of the people. That’s great.

Um, what those unelected justices did by making abortion a constitutional right 50 years ago was enable every woman to decide that personal thing for herself, at least up to the third trimester. And what last year’s justices did by overturning Roe v. Wade was put the personal decision in the hands of legislators, state court judges, and, in some cases, popular majorities.

That’s great?

Haley went on to suggest that, by requiring 60 votes in the Senate, a federal abortion ban is an impossibility. Instead, she proposed “consensus” legislation that would ban late-term abortions, guarantee contraception, encourage adoptions, forbid punishment of women who get abortions and protect doctors and nurses who oppose abortions from having to perform them. I’m guessing she thinks suburban women voters across the country would prefer this to the six-week ban in Haley’s own state.

At this point Fox News host Bret Baier jumped in to ask Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis whether the six-week abortion ban he signed in his state might be hard to sell nationally. After DeSantis bobbed and weaved (“Well, I would say we sold the biggest election landslide victory in the history of the Republican Party in the state of Florida in 2022”) and accused Democrats of supporting abortion “all the way up to the moment of birth,” Baier pressed him to say whether he’d sign a national six-week ban.

To which DeSantis replied, “Look, I understand, Wisconsin is going to do it different than Texas. I understand Iowa and New Hampshire are going to do different. But I will support the cause of life as governor and as president.” In other words, no national six-week ban.

That was too much for former Vice President Mike Pence, who began shaking his head. Called on by Baier, he swore religious allegiance to the pro-life cause: “After I gave my life to Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, I open(ed) up the book and I read, before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. And see I set before you life and death, blessings and curses now choose life.”

Pence, who brought white evangelicals to Donald Trump’s table as his running mate in 2016, has to bring them to his own in the evangelical-rich Iowa caucus Jan. 15 if he is to have any hope at all of securing the GOP nomination. In the latest Iowa poll, he and Haley are tied for fourth place at 6% after former President Trump (42%), DeSantis (19%), and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott (9%). 

So it was hardly a surprise that Pence called out Haley for preferring consensus to “leadership” as he made his pitch for a 15-week national ban. Whereupon he and Haley went at it, with the former claiming that 70% of Americans support such a ban (the latest Gallup poll finds that Americans think second-trimester abortions should be illegal 55%-37%) and the latter insisting that the Senate would never go for it.

Three of the other wannabes also weighed in.

Gov. Doug Burgum of North Dakota, who himself signed a six-week ban, cited the 10th Amendment’s declaration of state sovereignty in advocating an exclusively state-by-state approach. Former Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, claiming to come from “the most pro-life state in the nation,” figured that states were “most likely” to address the issue but said he was fine with doing so at a national level.

Scott, saying that states like California, Illinois and New York cannot be allowed to permit abortions “up until the day of birth,” went for the 15-week ban. Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, who has said “the federal government should stay out of it,” stayed out of it, as did former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who likewise opposes federal abortion legislation.

Did I mention that Susan B. Anthony Pro-life America, one of the country’s leading anti-abortion organizations, announced back in April that it would oppose any candidate who does not support the 15-week ban — singling out Trump, who a few days after the announcement indicated that he would consider signing such a ban if it reached his desk.

In an op-ed Friday in The Washington Post, the organization’s president, Marjorie Dannenfelser, and former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway called the 15-week ban “a popular and humane policy that Republicans must proudly adopt and articulate.”

In short, GOP candidates are caught between the rock of the pro-life movement and the hard place of a pro-choice electorate.

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