Republican candidates grapple with post-Roe positioning on abortion

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Eight Republican presidential hopefuls clashed over the future of abortion access on Wednesday night in the first debate of the 2024 election cycle.

Without the specter of Roe v Wade looming overhead, the candidates faced a new litmus test on abortion: whether or not they support a nationwide ban on the procedure after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

The former vice-president Mike Pence, former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott all pledged to support a federal 15-week ban.

The question from the moderator Martha MacCallum had noted that abortion had consistently been a losing issue for Republicans in state ballots since the Dobbs decision.

Nevertheless just one candidate, the North Dakota governor, Doug Burgum, decisively rejected the idea that Congress ought to regulate abortion access.

Burgum, who signed North Dakota’s six-week abortion ban in April, said the conservative mission to overturn Roe was predicated on the belief that states should be allowed to set their own rules on the procedure.

“What is going to work in New York will never work in North Dakota and vice versa,” Burgum said.

For decades, Roe v Wade offered Republican candidates a convenient boogeyman. The supreme court ruling was not just about abortion – swing state conservatives like Burgum could point to Roe as an example of federal overreach.

But Wednesday’s debate signaled a schism in the GOP’s position on abortion.

In a post-Roe landscape, one year after Senator Lindsey Graham first introduced a federal 15-week ban bill in Congress, Republicans were forced to choose between their purported support for states’ rights and their opposition to abortion access.

Burgum was the lone voice that chose states’ rights.

Pence and Scott, both evangelical Christians, said they support a 15-week ban because abortion is a “moral” question that necessitates federal intervention.

Scott said states like “California, New York and Illinois” should not be allowed to offer broad access to the procedure.

Pence said abortion was “not a states only issue, it’s a moral issue”.

The former vice-president, who has centered abortion in his bid to court socially conservative voters, condemned his opponents for refusing to back a federal ban.

“I’m not new to this cause,” Pence said on Wednesday night. “Can’t we have a minimum standard in every state in the nation?”

In his opening remarks, Pence lauded the work of the Trump administration, which placed three conservative justices on the US supreme court and “gave the people a new beginning for the right to life”.

Pence also criticized the former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who suggested that it would be difficult to gain the requisite congressional support to pass a federal abortion ban.

Haley, the only woman on Wednesday’s debate stage, said Republicans should instead pursue pragmatic legislative goals that could garner bipartisan support in Congress.

“Let’s find consensus, can’t we all agree that we should ban late-term abortions? Can’t we all agree that we should encourage adoptions?” she said.

In his response, Pence directly addressed Haley: “Consensus is the opposite of leadership.”

Susan B Anthony Pro-Life America, a powerful anti-abortion lobbying group, praised Pence, Hutchinson and Scott for offering “a clear, bold case for national protections for the unborn at least by 15 weeks”.

“The position taken by candidates like Doug Burgum, that life is solely a matter for the states, is unacceptable for a nation founded on unalienable rights and for a presidential contender,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, the group’s president, in a statement on Wednesday night.

Last month, Dannenfelser issued a similar condemnation of the Florida governor, Ron DeSantis, for his reluctance to back a federal ban.

DeSantis has supported bills restricting access to abortion – including a six-week ban in his own state of Florida, but has stopped short of saying he would support a federal ban.

Dannenfelser said the Republican presidential candidate should “work to gather the votes necessary in Congress” to pass a national ban on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy, adding that DeSantis’s failure to support the ban was “unacceptable”.

“There are many pressing legislative issues for which Congress does not have the votes at the moment, but that is not a reason for a strong leader to back away from the fight,” she said in a statement last month.

On Wednesday night, Fox News moderators twice asked DeSantis to clarify his position on federal abortion restrictions, but the Florida governor refused to provide a direct answer.

“I’m going to stand on the side of life,” DeSantis said. “I understand Wisconsin is going to do it different than Texas, I understand Iowa and New Hampshire are going to be different, but I will support the cause of life as governor and as president.”

Notably, Donald Trump – the presumed GOP frontrunner – skipped Wednesday night’s debate.

Earlier this year, Trump criticized DeSantis’s position on abortion, calling Florida’s six-week ban “too harsh”.

But the former president appears to share DeSantis’s hesitations about the federal 15-week ban, dodging questions about the proposed restrictions since launching his re-election campaign in March.

The Guardian reported in April that Trump considers a federal abortion ban a losing proposition for Republicans, though his exact vision for the future of US abortion access remains unclear.

Read More: Republican candidates grapple with post-Roe positioning on abortion

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