Presidential hopefuls draw abortion battle lines
Candidates debate how far the federal government should go to protect babies
In a video announcing his reelection campaign this week, President Joe Biden highlighted the expected importance of abortion policy to voters in 2024. He warned of “MAGA extremists” who want to “take away a woman’s right to choose.”
A self-professed Catholic, Biden typically leaves pro-abortion campaigning to Vice President Kamala Harris. But in this election cycle, Biden and other presidential candidates are taking early stands on the life issue and gearing up for an intense debate.
Former President Donald Trump, who is running again in 2024, has called himself “the most pro-life president” for nominating three pro-life justices to the Supreme Court. Those justices helped to overturn Roe v. Wade with last summer’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson, returning to states the ability to protect babies from abortion at all stages of pregnancy.
In a recent statement to The Washington Post, a campaign spokesman said Trump believes abortion is now an issue for states to decide. The comment cost him the backing of the group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America. Marjorie Dannenfelser, the group’s president and formerly a Trump supporter, said the organization will not endorse any presidential candidate unless he or she supports a federal ban on abortions starting at 15 weeks of gestation.
“Life is a matter of human rights, not states’ rights,” Dannenfelser wrote in a statement. “Saying that the issue should only be decided at the states [level] is an endorsement of abortion up until the moment of birth, even brutal late-term abortions in states like California, Illinois, New York, and New Jersey.”
Less than a week later, Republican candidate Nikki Haley appeared at SBA Pro-Life America’s headquarters in Arlington, Va. The former governor of South Carolina and ambassador to the United Nations shared stories of her husband’s adoption, how they struggled to conceive children through fertility treatments, and how she helped a friend who was a victim of rape through fears about an unplanned pregnancy. Though Haley did not specify which pro-life policies she supported, she said it’s time for the country’s leaders to find consensus, even at the federal level. She touted pro-life laws passed during her time as governor such as the Born Alive Infant Protection Act.
“My goal as president will be the same as when I was governor and ambassador,” she told the small group. “I want to save as many unborn lives and help as many moms as possible.”
From the small breakroom at SBA headquarters, Haley lauded several legal protections for the unborn passed in other states but warned that they might not last. Political tensions and parties continually change, and she called on lawmakers to find consensus to enact lasting laws. But she did not promise a federal ban, either.
“The pro-life laws that have passed in strongly Republican states will not be approved at the federal level. That’s just a fact, notwithstanding what the Democrat fearmongers say … but that does not mean we can’t save as many lives as possible. I do believe there is a federal role on abortion. Whether we can save more lives nationally depends entirely on doing what no one has done to date – finding consensus,” Haley said.
Other candidates are clarifying their positions on abortion. Venture capitalist Vivek Ramaswamy built his platform mostly on taking on woke corporations. He said previously that he is pro-life but did not discuss abortion-related policies. Then this week, he told Fox News that the federal government should not enact an abortion ban but should leave it up to the states.
“I do think that abortion is a form of murder,” Ramaswamy said. “But if you think that, murder isn’t regulated by the federal government. Murder is done by state statutes. … This is not an answer for the president, because I think the federal government should be out of this.”
Ramaswamy said he would work with states to enact protections for unborn babies at six weeks’ gestation.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has not announced his campaign officially but is widely expected to run against Trump for the Republican presidential nomination. On April 13, he signed the Heartbeat Protection Act, protecting unborn babies with a detectable heartbeat, typically at six weeks’ gestation. The act also boosts resources for expectant mothers.
“This is his opportunity to show himself as a leader on this issue,” said Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America.
“[DeSantis] has done a lot, but we really needed to see action at the legislative level. I think this ‘heartbeat law’ fully cements his pro-life street cred.”
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson formally launched his campaign for the Republican nomination on Wednesday. Before leaving office last year, he signed a law that protects unborn babies beyond six weeks’ gestation except when the life of the mother is at risk. He told NBC News earlier this month that he would consider a federal pro-life law but it is ultimately up to each state. Then on Sunday he told Fox News he would pass a federal protection for unborn life with “the appropriate exceptions.”
“I would support that if those restrictions are in place and that we can have a national standard to help save the lives of the unborn,” he said. “I would prefer that this is an issue that’s resolved by the states because that’s what the pro-life community fought for for 40 years in reversing Roe v. Wade.”
In the meantime, pro-abortion groups are pouring millions of dollars into down-ballot campaigns. Judge Janet Protasiewicz was elected to Wisconsin’s Supreme Court in what became the nation’s most expensive state judicial campaign. She campaigned heavily on her pro-abortion views. Planned Parenthood, a key donor in the $42 million race, said the results clearly indicate abortion is an important issue for post-Dobbs elections.
“Any state at any time could become the next battleground over the issue of abortion,” said Anthony Cherogsky, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse. “This was Wisconsin’s turn to be that battleground. The politics of abortion have just utterly been transformed.”
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