Since Roe v. Wade was overturned last summer, the right has struggled to define its next goal in the anti-abortion fight. Whether to support federal legislation that would ban or restrict the procedure may become one of the brightest dividing lines for the Republicans running for President in 2024.
So far, the GOP presidential hopefuls are treading carefully. Most of them have avoided taking a clear stance on federal abortion legislation. Instead, they have dodged questions on the subject, reaffirmed their “pro-life” bonafides and talked about leaving abortion restrictions up to the states.
As the primary heats up in the first post-Roe presidential election, the candidates will likely have to detail their positions more clearly if they want to win over anti-abortion voters. And while major anti-abortion groups aren’t pushing for a total ban on abortion, they say, they are making support for federal restrictions at some point in a pregnancy a 2024 litmus test. “The condition upon which our support hinges is whether they think there is a federal role at all,” Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, tells TIME. “There needs to be a federal minimum standard. It has to be at least 15 weeks.”
A federal law has been introduced that would meet Dannenfelser’s basic criteria. Last year, after the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision ending the constitutional right to abortion, Republican South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham proposed a bill that would make it a crime for a physician to perform an abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy, with exceptions if the pregnancy is life-threatening or the result of rape or incest. (Dannenfelser stood beside him as he announced it.) Previous versions of the bill put the cut-off at 20 weeks and were cosponsored by almost all his GOP Senate colleagues, but the new bill did not get the same support. Polling at the time from Morning Consult/Politico showed 51% of Americans and 70% of Republicans backed its provisions, and Politico reported that Graham plans to reintroduce the bill this year.
According to Dannenfelser, nearly all of the declared and potential 2024 Republican candidates support a 15-week federal limit, if not an even stricter one. Some anti-abortion groups would like to see them go further. “My minimum standards would be in the first trimester,” Students for Life Action president Kristan Hawkins tells TIME. “I would say at minimum, we would need to see a candidate support signing into law a heartbeat abortion prevention act,” she added, referencing legislation that bans abortion after five or six weeks. “We would definitely not throw our weight behind someone who feels that abortion is merely a state issue.”
Hawkins argues Republican candidates would cross the anti-abortion base at their peril. “Anyone who works on a grassroots political campaign knows pro-lifers are the ones who show up,” Hawkins says. “They’re the ones who door knock on Saturdays. They’re the ones who give up their nights and their weekends making phone calls. They are your workers on a campaign. They are the most motivated of your voters.”
Here’s where the Republicans who have announced they are running for President or may soon do so stand on abortion restrictions at the federal level.
Since nominating three of the Supreme Court Justices that overturned Roe, former President Donald Trump has claimed credit for a win that took the anti-abortion movement more than half a century to achieve. However, he has also suggested that abortion politics could hurt Republicans among the American electorate.
“President Donald J. Trump believes that the Supreme Court, led by the three Justices which he supported, got it right when they ruled this is an issue that should be decided at the state level,” Trump spokesperson Steven Cheung told the Washington Post in April.
“President Trump’s assertion that the Supreme Court returned the issue of abortion solely to the states is a completely inaccurate reading of the Dobbs decision and is a morally indefensible position for a self-proclaimed pro-life presidential candidate to hold,” Dannenfelser said in a statement in response. “We will oppose any presidential candidate who refuses to embrace at a minimum a 15-week national standard to stop painful late-term abortions while allowing states to enact further protections.”
Asked by TIME in March if Trump would back a 15-week federal abortion ban or any other national restrictions, Cheung did not directly answer the question. He wrote in a statement, “President Trump’s unmatched record speaks for itself—nominating pro-life federal judges and Supreme Court justices that overturned Roe v. Wade, ending taxpayer funded abortions, reinstating the Mexico City Policy that protects the life of the unborn abroad, and many other actions that championed the life of the unborn. There has been no bigger advocate for the movement than President Trump.”
Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley has signaled that she wouldn’t back a total federal ban. She told the TODAY Show soon after her campaign launch that she would not support “a full-out federal ban, because I don’t think that’s been put on the table.”
“We are not ok with abortion up until the time of birth, and so we should at least decide when is it ok,” Haley said in response to a question about Graham’s proposed 15-week ban.
The only woman in the Republican field so far, Haley has also expressed support for states deciding their own abortion restrictions. In 2016, she signed a law that banned abortion in South Carolina after five months, with an exception for a life-threatening pregnancy. She told WMUR last August, “I want to see as many states that are as pro-life as possible.”
Haley’s campaign did not directly address TIME’s question about whether she would back a federal ban on abortion.
Entrepreneur and author Vivek Ramaswamy is the only Republican in the race whose campaign has confirmed that he would not back a federal abortion ban.
“As a constitutional matter, he believes it’s an issue for the states and not the federal government,” says spokesperson Tricia McLaughlin.
Although Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a six-week abortion ban in his state in April—a law which will not go into effect until a court upholds the state’s 15-week ban—he has not detailed his stance on such a ban at the federal level. A DeSantis spokesperson did not directly answer TIME’s question on whether he would support one.
According to the Washington Post, DeSantis is not expected to announce a presidential bid until after the Florida legislative session ends in May.
Dannenfelser says she believes DeSantis thinks the federal government has a role to play on abortion. “I’ve met with him,” she says. “I’ve talked to him. And I know that that’s what he thinks. His job right now is to be a governor, so he’s very focused on that work.”
Among the possible 2024 candidates, former Vice President Mike Pence has taken the firmest stance on restricting abortion at the federal level.
“I certainly would support any pro-life legislation that Congress would take up,” Pence told CBS News in January. “But I do believe that this issue is likely to be resolved one state at a time.”
According to a Real Clear Politics story from September, Pence said backing a national ban and state-by-state restrictions “is profoundly more important than any short-term politics.” He also expressed his support for Graham’s proposed 15-week ban.
“We must not rest and must not relent until the sanctity of life is restored to the center of American law in every state in the land,” Pence said soon after Roe was overturned.
According to audio obtained by Jezebel, Pence said last month that “we need to” ban abortion pills, which are used for a significant share of abortions, especially those performed early in pregnancy.
“For a decade or so, I worked hard to return the authority to the states,” he said. “I think that’s the best place for it and that’s where it sits now. New York is going to be very different from Texas or Kansas. I think the Lord will be at work, and over time, I think they will all come to see the vital nature of protecting the unborn.”
In an opinion piece published last summer after Roe was overturned, Pompeo, who has not announced a run for President, wrote, “While we would like to see abortion illegal nationwide, that likely won’t happen in the near term. Instead, we should take a two-pronged approach: 1) restrict abortion as much as possible in each state, and 2) work to create a society that makes abortion obsolete.”
Since Dobbs, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott has left his position on a national abortion ban unclear, though he previously co-sponsored Graham’s 20-week ban.
According to WSAV, Scott ignored two questions in October about whether he would back Graham’s 15-week ban. “I understood his question as well as yours,” Scott, who has not announced a run for President but recently traveled to Iowa, said. “I just simply say I am going to talk about what the voters are talking about.”
He did not end up cosponsoring Graham’s new bill, although he was not among the Republicans who signaled their opposition. A Scott spokesperson did not respond to TIME’s requests for comment about where the Senator stands on a national ban.
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