3 things to know about the abortion issue ahead of the GOP primary debate

Most voters support abortion access, but want limits after the first trimester.

August 23, 2023, 2:40 PM

After winning a 50-year fight to get Roe v. Wade overruled last year, the Republican Party faces tough questions on abortion access.

Should abortion be banned at conception or later? What exceptions should be allowed -- and if there are exceptions, how should that be enforced? Which medical emergencies would qualify? And should these decisions be made at the federal or state level?

Here are three things to know about where the issue stands ahead of the first GOP primary debate:

Candidates are under pressure by activists to embrace a nationwide ban on most abortions after 15 weeks

Conservative activists are pushing GOP candidates to embrace federal legislation that would prohibit most abortion after 15 weeks of gestation, allowing for exceptions in cases of rape and incest and to protect the life of the patient.

Under the draft law -- proposed by Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and swiftly embraced by former Vice President Mike Pence -- states would still be allowed to enact tougher restrictions, including the near-total bans seen in states like Mississippi and Louisiana.

But states such as California and Vermont, whose voters guaranteed abortion rights in their state constitutions, could also be forced to follow the 15-week prohibition.

One prominent group, Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, has met privately with Republican candidates to push for the idea, citing polling data that finds most Americans support at least some limits on abortion access.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, the group's president, says she'll attend the debate in Milwaukee on Wednesday.

"GOP candidates must state their pro-life position clearly and contrast it with the extreme and unpopular position of their Democrat opponents," Dannenfelser said in a statement released Tuesday. "Hiding from this issue and allowing your opponent to define you is political cowardice and unacceptable."

PHOTO: The Fiserv Forum is seen as set up continues for the upcoming Republican presidential debate Aug. 22, 2023, in Milwaukee.
The Fiserv Forum is seen as set up continues for the upcoming Republican presidential debate Aug. 22, 2023, in Milwaukee.
Morry Gash/AP

Candidates know abortion polling isn't in their favor. But it's also unlikely to doom their candidacy

Expect several candidates to dodge direct questions on abortion access and whether they support a nationwide law, much as they did during the 2022 primaries.

That's because abortion access isn't a clear winner for GOP candidates. The majority of Americans – 78% – say the decision on an abortion should be left to a woman and her doctor, rather than regulated by law, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll last May.

Other more recent polls cite widespread support for allowing the procedure in the first trimester.

There's also a growing number of Americans who say there shouldn't be any limits on abortion access. Democrats' support for second-trimester legality jumped 35 points between 2000 and 2023, with a big spike in the year following the year’s Supreme Court decision, according to one recent AP/NORC analysis.

But this shift in attitudes won't change much for Republicans trying to win a conservative primary. Even as Democrats move to ensure access, Republicans and independent voters -- the same kind the GOP candidates are trying to win over – still favor at least some limits after the first trimester.

What's more is that Republican and independent voters are considered less likely to base their votes on the abortion rights issue alone.

Conservative states such as Ohio, Kentucky and Kansas have recently rejected proposals that would have paved the way for tougher restrictions on abortion. That suggests when the question of abortion is put to them directly, Republican voters shy away from the idea of government restrictions.

PHOTO: Presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at The Gathering in Atlanta, Aug. 18, 2023.
Presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at The Gathering in Atlanta, Aug. 18, 2023.
Ben Gray/AP

At the same time, though, conservatives still embraced governors like Ron DeSantis in Florida and Brian Kemp in Georgia who oppose abortion access, but campaigned primarily on parental rights in education and tougher crime and immigration enforcement. That gives GOP presidential candidates a roadmap forward, at least through a conservative primary.

This issue isn't going away, even if GOP candidates avoid talking about it

More than a year after the fall of Roe v. Wade, the question of abortion access is far from settled. Several high-profile cases are winding their way through the courts, while activists are pushing abortion-related ballot measures at upcoming elections.

On Wednesday, the same day as the debate, the South Carolina Supreme Court agreed to uphold a ban on most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. The decision reversed the same court’s decision against a similar law earlier this year.

Among the court cases is a law signed by DeSantis that prohibits most abortions after six weeks. The Florida Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments Sept. 8 on the state's existing 15-week ban already in effect. If the court greenlights the restrictions, the tougher six-week prohibition could take effect.

Then in November, Ohio will vote whether to enshrine abortion rights in that state's constitution. The vote comes after the state rejected GOP efforts to make such ballot measures tougher to pass.

Other conservative states that could see upcoming ballot measures include Arizona, Florida, Missouri, South Dakota, Pennsylvania, Iowa and Nebraska.

Also on tap in coming months is the U.S. Supreme Court's consideration of whether abortion medication should be more restricted than federal regulators allow.

Under rules set by the Food and Drug Administration, the drug mifepristone can be used to terminate pregnancies up to 10 weeks and is safe enough to be provided via telehealth and mailed to a patient.

Lower courts have sided with the conservative plaintiffs in the case, determining that those rules go too far, paving the way for a possible Supreme Court decision on the matter in 2024.