GOP presidential hopefuls struggle to address abortion: Here's what they've said on the issue
2024 will be the first election since the U.S. Supreme Court overruled Roe.
Republican candidates running for president are struggling with how to address abortion in a post-Roe America.
Most are choosing their words carefully -- or not commenting directly at all -- as restricting what women can do when it comes to reproductive rights has shown to be unpopular with many of the voters they'll need to win the White House.
With the Supreme Court potentially weighing in on Friday on a Texas judge's unprecedented decision to revoke FDA approval of mifepristone, a medication used in about half of abortions nationwide, Americans may wonder where those running to be president stand in the abortion debate.
"Before the Dobbs decision, Republicans could sort of say whatever they wanted to on the issue, and it didn't really matter, because they didn't necessarily think that the Supreme Court was ever going to overturn Roe. It was always in theory," said Doug Heye, a former communications director for the Republican National Committee. "Now it's real. And they're seeing that there are real electoral consequences."
Since the Supreme Court overturned 50 years of abortion precedent last June, the issue has hurt Republicans in elections. Kansas voters were the first to decide post-Dobbs to keep abortion legal. In the midterms, candidates who were painted as extreme on abortion also appeared extreme on other issues, Heye said, resulting in GOP losses. Most recently in Wisconsin, a liberal judge flipped that state's supreme court's ideological majority in a race largely focused on future access to abortion.
"There was a through line and lesson to be learned with the 2022 midterms and the WI SC [Wisconsin Supreme Court] race – when candidates don't define their stance on abortion, they lose," said E.V. Osment, vice president of communications for Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America.
"In the 2022 midterms, governors who signed ambitious pro-life legislation into law and never flinched politically, despite running in competitive states, came out on top," she told ABC News, citing wins by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who have signed legislation restricting abortion. "There are also examples of candidates who were not prepared and took the ostrich strategy: burying their heads in the sand and running from the issue, allowing their opponents to define them," she added, naming Dr. Oz in Pennsylvania.
"The losing ostrich strategy has been pushed by the inside-the-beltway consultant/strategist class who urge candidates to totally ignore abortion and hope it goes away," Osment added. "It's not going away."
"But there are two sets of electoral consequences," Heye told ABC News. "There's the primary, which you got to get through, and then there's the general where Republicans obviously had problems last year, in part because of the Dobbs decision."
While polls show a majority of Americans want abortion to be legal under certain circumstances, there's been somewhat of a race among GOP-led legislatures to pass anti-abortion rights legislation (one even before the Supreme Court took up Dobbs with so-called trigger laws). With a patchwork of state laws now dictating the nation's landscape, the competition among red states has become a problem for Republican candidates facing the first presidential election post-Dobbs.
"If there are six people on a debate stage come August, you can see where it's almost like a Name That Tune: 'I can ban abortion in eight weeks.' 'Well, I can ban abortion in seven weeks.' And that number keeps going lower and lower and lower until it's zero. It's become competitive," Heye added.
Republican Rep. Nancy Mace of South Carolina predicted losses in 2024 if Republicans don't find a "middle ground" on the issue.
"I have a great pro-life voting record but some of the stances we've taken, especially when it comes to rape and incest, protecting the life of a mother, it's so extreme, the middle -- the independent voters, right of center, left of center, they cannot support us," Mace said on Fox News Sunday. "I saw the tide change after Roe was overturned. We went mildly pro-choice to being a vast majority of voters being pro-choice after Roe v. Wade. It changed the entire electoral environment in '22."
"We have not learned our lesson from the midterm election," she added. "We're afraid of the issue because we're afraid of our base."
Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life Action, an anti-abortion rights group, said any Republican candidate who avoids talking about abortion in 2024 will "do so at their own electoral peril."
"They should address the life issue with all the passion that they give to every other issue. Whether they like it or not, abortion is still a political issue at the state, local, and federal level. If you want to run for a federal office, you should discuss your federal options for abortion policy," Hawkins told ABC News.
Here are 10 Republicans either running for president -- or who have indicated an interest in running -- who ABC News reached out to for comment -- and what they've said -- or avoided saying -- recently on abortion as the Supreme Court weighs access to mifepristone:
Former President Donald Trump is one of those who has largely avoided talking about abortion -- though he could arguably tout what he calls a "pro-life" stance having appointed three of the five justices who voted to overrule Roe.
"I think he sees that electorally this, this is a problem," Heye said.
Trump kicked off the year by saying he was not to blame for GOP losses in the midterms, but that, "It was the 'abortion issue,' poorly handled by many Republicans, especially those that firmly insisted on No Exceptions, even in the case of Rape, Incest, or Life of the Mother, that lost large numbers of Voters."
"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 campaign spokesman Steven Cheung said in a statement to the Washington Post this week. "Republicans have been trying to get this done for 50 years, but were unable to do so. President Trump, who is considered the most pro-life President in history, got it done. He will continue these policies when reelected to the White House. Like President Reagan before him, President Trump supports exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother."
Anti-abortion rights groups have since blasted what they called Trump's "states only" approach -- with Hawkins casting Trump's "failure to understand a way forward on abortion" as a "troubling sign."
"Former President Trump seems determined to write a new book, How to Kill a Deal, as he signals to those who once supported him that he may not be up to the task of protecting all American lives in law and in service," she said in a release. "Trump still wants the votes of the Pro-Life Generation, but it's hard to see what he brings to the table given his waiving support defending innocent life at every level of government."
Trump nominated the Texas federal judge who halted FDA approval of mifepristone, setting off a legal firestorm, but the former president has been mostly quiet on the case.
Former U.N. Ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, the only woman officially running for the GOP nomination, was careful not to put off any voters over the issue at a "Women for Nikki" initiative in Des Moines last week.
Edging both sides, she said that while she is "pro-life" she understands abortion "is a personal issue for women and for men."
"It needs to be treated with the respect that it should. I don't want unelected judges deciding something this personal," she told voters, according to the Des Moines Register.
"Let's let the states work this out. If Congress decides to do it -- but don't get in that game of them saying 'how many weeks, how many' -- no. Let's first figure out what we agree on and then move forward. This is about saving as many babies as we can. This is about supporting as many moms as we can."
Haley is scheduled to give a "major policy speech on abortion" on April 26 in Arlington, her campaign said.
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who signed a near-total abortion ban in his state ahead of the Supreme Court overruling Roe, has said he "personally" believes abortion bans should have exceptions for rape, incest and to save the life of the mother.
But when it comes to mifepristone, he's largely punted to the court and states without disclosing his personal view.
"Ultimately, I think this is an issue that while the courts will rule on it, the states are going to determine whether it's permissible or not, regardless of what the courts say," he said last week, according to the Iowa Capitol Dispatch.
"If you believe in the state's prerogative, which the Dobbs decision gave us, then each state's going to make their decision as to how they're going to approach [abortion], which is the right way under our system of federalism," he said.
Hutchinson has said on more than one occasion that if he were elected president and was sent a nationwide abortion ban bill, he "would want to look at the bill to see exactly what it does."
Vivek Ramaswamy, a 37-year-old biotech entrepreneur who compares himself to Trump in that he's a newcomer to the political scene, has suggested he would not support further restrictions on abortion, and neither should the Republican Party.
When asked about federal abortion bans, Ramaswamy has said abortion is an issue for state governments and that the federal government should only concern itself with items dictated in the Constitution.
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, shortly after launching a presidential exploratory committee, stumbled to answer where he stood on abortion, but has since vowed to sign "literally sign the most conservative pro-life legislation that they can get through Congress."
Scott previously said he would support a nationwide abortion ban after 20 weeks but declined to take a stance on mifepristone.
"The courts are on their way to solving the problem," he told reporters last week.
Part of the reason Scott stumbled on this issue, Heye said, is because it's "fast-moving" in the Republican Party after Dobbs.
"The Dobbs decision put [abortion] in the Wild West, and again, everybody's sort of competing against each other. They're in that reality, where you're not on firm ground -- the sand is shifting beneath you every day -- and it's difficult to find a firm place to be," he said.
Pence, also not formally in the race but weighing a run, has said there is "no greater cause than the cause of life." He supports the Texas judge's ruling to invalidate FDA approval of mifepristone and has indicated he'd support a nationwide ban of the medication altogether.
"Life won again today," he said in a statement reacting to the Texas decision. "When it approved chemical abortions on demand, the FDA acted carelessly and with blatant disregard for human life and the wellbeing of American women, and today's ruling fixed a 20 year wrong."
Pence would be unlikely to veto anti-abortion legislation and, vice versa, would be likely to veto anything sympathetic to abortion rights causes if elected president.
While Pence is praising judicial action now, he praised the court for "returning the question of abortion to the states and to the people" in the wake of the Dobbs decision.
When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed Florida's 15-week abortion ban into law last year, he held the event with fanfare. Last week, he signed the six-week ban in his office close to midnight, with critics saying he did so in preparation for a presidential bid.
It's not an issue he wants to go big on, Heye said, but one where the state legislature may have just forced his hand.
"DeSantis was not at a six-week ban until his state legislature passed the bill. So that's now his position, whether he wanted it to be that or not, and clearly, he felt compelled to do so," Heye said.
Hawkins, who criticized Trump punting the issue to a "states only" approach, hailed DeSantis and Pence as "leaders in policy and in use of the bully pulpit."
"Gov. DeSantis just signed heartbeat legislation, while Pence is discussing the need for Chemical Abortion Pill policy. The Pro-Life Generation is looking for people who have specific plans to act, not just talking points. The rest could learn from their example," she told ABC News in a statement.
While visiting New Hampshire, where abortion is allowed up to 24 weeks in most cases, DeSantis did not mention the six-week ban he had just signed, but on Friday he did tout the signing while speaking outside Washington at the Heritage Foundation 50th Anniversary Summit, before a highly-conservative audience.
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a self-described "pro-choice" Republican leading what many consider to be a blue state, believes if the Supreme Court were to uphold a ban on mifepristone, it would "absolutely" further hurt Republicans with swing voters.
"It's been around for 20 years…it's about these massive changes in precedent," he said. "Roe v. Wade, whether you agreed with or not, there was a 50-year precedent there. There's a 20-year precedent with [mifepristone]. So now to the American public, it looks like Republicans are coming in and trying to massively change and blow up the system."
He said it will "be interesting to see" how 2024 candidates navigate the issue, he says, the party is losing on.
"My issue is I think it's a terrible message for the Republican primary. I think it hurts us in the general election," he said on Fox News. "There are much more pressing issues."
And without naming him directly, Sununu called Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., proposing a 15-week abortion ban three weeks before last year's midterms "the dumbest thing you could possibly do."
Steve Laffey, a former mayor of Cranston, Rhode Island, identifies as "pro-life" but has not directly addressed his views of mifepristone.
"I am happy that Roe vs Wade has been overturned and the issue of abortion has been returned to the states, where it has always belonged," Laffey said in a statement to ABC News. "Let's leave all of these abortion questions to the individual states and let the various courts properly handle all of these issues."
Perry Johnson, a Michigan businessman who failed to capture the GOP nomination for Michigan governor last year, faced backlash when he declined to rule out banning abortion for sexual assault survivors.
"I will tell you this: Two wrongs don't make a right. I am pro-life," Johnson told reporters at the time.
ABC News' Hannah Demissie contributed to this report.
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