Republicans are split on whether their presidential contenders should embrace a federal 15-week ban on abortion as the party tries to find its footing on the issue going into 2024.
In a radio ad released Thursday in Iowa, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) vowed to back a national 15-week ban on the procedure. That ad followed a call last week from former Vice President Mike Pence, who urged the other candidates to embrace a federal 15-week ban.
But the issue has continued to dog other candidates, including former President Trump, and has sparked disagreement among anti-abortion groups over how candidates should be handling the issue on the campaign trail.
“What’s interesting is that neither DeSantis or Trump, who are the two — for lack of better term — front-runners, neither one of them are really saying what they’re trying to do in terms of federal legislation,” Ralph Reed, the founder of the influential Faith and Freedom Coalition, told reporters last week at the group’s annual gathering.
“So others are going to try to force them, and it will be very fascinating to see how it plays out, and then by the time we get to the convention in Milwaukee, we’ll have a platform and there will be a position,” he added.
The Republican presidential candidates have offered differing approaches over how to handle the tricky issue of abortion, including whether to back limits to the medical procedure at the national level.
Trump has dodged whether he would support a national ban but noted during a Faith and Freedom Coalition event last week there “remains a vital role for the federal government in protecting unborn life.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who signed a six-week ban on the procedure in his home state in April, has also avoided weighing in on federal limits, but he struck a similar tone to Trump, saying in an interview in May that “there’s a role for both the federal [government] and states.”
Although Pence and Scott have backed 15-week limits, it’s unclear whether other candidates will rally around that number. But some have already said they see it as reasonable.
“Part of this is what is actually doable when [you’ve] been in office, and I don’t see 60 votes happening, right?” said former Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas) in a brief interview with The Hill last week, noting the number of votes needed in the Senate to avoid a filibuster.
“But my personal position has always been 15 weeks sounds right,” he continued.
Other Republicans have also suggested support for that limit on abortion.
Asked whether a 15-week limit on abortion was something the 2024 contenders could get behind during last week’s Faith and Freedom Coalition event, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said, “I would hope so.”
“Listen, I won’t give any of them advice, they don’t ask for my advice … so they don’t care what I think, but I would just say personally, I think that there is a national consensus on that. That seems to be an easy place for Republicans to stand and say, ‘Let’s defend unborn children when they’re pain-capable,'” Hawley continued. “You know, [there’s] a huge support for that nationally. So that, to me, seems a great place to land at the national level as a party.”
Reed noted that anti-abortion candidates need to “stop being afraid of their own shadow” on the issue.
“What will not work is what our candidates and campaigns tried to do in ’22, which was never talk it about it and only talk about inflation and gas prices and think that this would go away,” Reed said.
National anti-abortion groups have notably disagreed over what kind of federal limits candidates should be supporting — and even whether they should talk about it at all.
Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America offered a sharp rebuke to Trump’s campaign in April after his campaign suggested Trump supported the issue of abortion being handled at the state level.
SBA Pro-Life America President Marjorie Dannenfelser said they would not back any GOP contenders who don’t “embrace at a minimum a 15-week national standard to stop painful late-term abortions while allowing states to enact further protections.”
“This is something that we recognize has national consensus,” said E.V. Osment, a spokesperson for the group. “We see that Americans reject the position of Biden and Democrats who want late abortions or no limits.”
“We think this is a very wise position for presidential candidates to take,” she added. “That’s why we’re talking to them about it.”
But other abortion opponents say a 15-week national limit isn’t effective or realistic at the federal level.
Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee, told The Hill that calls from some of the candidates to rally around a 15-week limit was a “mistake” because the majority of abortions happen before that time, and it still allows abortion rights groups to say the candidates back national abortion restrictions.
Roughly 93 percent of abortions in 2020 happened before or at 13 weeks in a woman’s pregnancy, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Close to 6 percent of abortions took place between 14 and 20 weeks.
“I’m not aware of anybody that thinks we are actually going to have a national law on abortion one way or the other because the votes aren’t there,” Tobias said. “You know, we can talk about passing a national bill, but it isn’t going to happen, not in the foreseeable future. So what we are encouraging the candidates to do is talk about things that the federal government can do that will make a difference.”
Asked whether candidates should talk about a national limit on abortion, Tobias said, “I think it’s better for them to pivot. What can we actually accomplish?”
Osment pushed back on the notion that reaching a consensus was a lost cause for lawmakers.
“That’s just not a position that’s reasonable,” Osment said. “If the pro-life movement had done that, we wouldn’t have had any progress over the last 50 years [and] over the last 12 years with partial birth abortion.”
“And frankly, just in general, Democrats and Republicans, if they were to take this position, they wouldn’t be pushing for anything,” she continued. “Most things don’t have 60 votes. Look at immigration, tax policy, term limits. It doesn’t deter them from talking about these things, rallying around these things and trying for them because they know it’s important to represent the will of the American people.”
Lila Rose, the president of the anti-abortion group Live Action, said although a 15-week national limit would be “an improvement to the existing federal lack of law,” she wanted to see something closer to “heartbeat” protections, limits generally at the six-week mark.
But not all conservatives and Republicans are on board with any type of federal ban.
“I think the winning strategy is for everyone to get on the same page and that the federal government should stay the hell out of this issue,” said New Hampshire House Majority Leader Jason Osborne (R), who is backing DeSantis in the race. “In New Hampshire, we like 24 weeks right now. Maybe 20 years from now it will be 15 weeks, but who knows?”
Osborne acknowledged that the 15-week limit has polled well nationally, but noted it’s “not going to work in every state.”
“In New Hampshire, there would be pushback on that,” he said.