‘It Is a Moral Issue’: Republicans Clash over Abortion in First 2024 Presidential Debate
With Donald Trump absent, abortion took center stage at the first Republican primary debate in Milwaukee Wednesday night, as the next tier of presidential hopefuls ran the gamut from accusing the party of “demonizing” the issue to declaring it “a moral issue” worthy of federal protection.
Eight Republican candidates faced off in Milwaukee’s Fiserv Forum arena in the inaugural debate of the 2024 presidential season, hosted by Fox News. Moderators Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum turned to abortion about half an hour into the two-hour-long debate, stoking fierce exchanges that spilled into the rest of the event.
Former Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Tim Scott (R-S.C.) clearly declared that the federal government must establish an absolute minimum to protect unborn children in all 50 states from unrestrained abortion-on-demand. “After I gave my heart to Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, I picked up the Book and I read, ‘Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you,’” said Pence, citing the Book of Jeremiah. “A 15-week ban is an idea whose time has come.”
“We must have a president of the United States who will advocate and fight for at a minimum a 15-week limit,” said Scott, citing the Declaration of Independence’s statement that “our Creator gave us inalienable rights that include life.” Americans “cannot let states like California, New York, and Illinois have abortions on demand up until the day of birth. That is immoral, it is unethical, and it is wrong.”
Although he stopped short of endorsing specific national pro-life legislation, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) told Sean Hannity after the debate that if Congress passes a bill to “prevent late-term abortions … obviously, as a pro-life president, I’m going to support that.” Yet he added that pro-life efforts will likely percolate organically from the “ground-up,” beginning with the states, which will take different approaches. DeSantis, who regularly polls second behind former President Donald Trump, added that he’s “proud” of signing his state’s Heartbeat law, which protects unborn children once doctors can detect a fetal heartbeat, at roughly six weeks. “It’s the right thing to do.”
Polling shows a vast majority of Americans support a 15-week national limit on abortions, a standard that would still allow more than 90% of all abortions nationwide. A Marist poll found 69% of Americans, including 72% of women, say abortion should be limited to the first trimester.
Yet some lower-rated candidates opposed any federal role in abortion, or presented the procedural hurdles standing in the way of pro-life legislation as insurmountable.
“We should not have a federal abortion ban,” said North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum (R), who reportedly tore his Achilles tendon in a basketball game on Tuesday. He invoked the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution’s recognition of states’ rights. “If we say the feds should be in this, where do we stop?” he asked.
That drew a rebuke from leading pro-life conservatives. “A discussion among the presidential hopefuls about protecting unborn children is important, as it is a defining issue for our nation,” said Family Research Council President Tony Perkins. “For those candidates who want to push past the issue and say it is a matter for the states, voters need to push past those candidates, because if they deem the unborn undeserving of protection, they are undeserving of our support.”
“If you don’t believe abortion is a federal issue, you don’t belong on the GOP debate stage tonight,” said Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America.
Former Arkansas Governor and U.S. Attorney Asa Hutchinson also noted, “The Supreme Court gave [the issue of abortion] back to the elected representatives, whether it’s the states or whether it’s the United States Congress. So, there is authority” to regulate abortion at the federal level.
Democrats “have their extreme position at a national level,” he observed. “President Biden is pushing for a Democrat proposal which in essence is abortion-on-demand through the term” — an apparent reference to the so-called “Women’s Health Protection Act,” which would overrule state abortion laws and wipe nearly all of the 1,381 pro-life protections for the unborn off the books.
Fox moderators began the discussion by casting pro-life protections as politically harmful. “Abortion has been a losing issue for Republicans since the Dobbs decision,” asserted moderator Martha MacCallum in a question to former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who also criticized her party’s pro-life base.
“We need to stop demonizing this issue. This is talking about the fact that unelected justices didn’t need to decide something this personal,” said Haley. “When it comes to a federal ban, let’s be honest with the American people and say it will take 60 Senate votes; it will take a majority of the House. In order to do that, let’s find consensus.”
“Can’t we all agree that we should ban late-term abortions? Can’t we all agree that we should encourage adoptions? Can’t we all agree that doctors and nurses who don’t believe in abortions shouldn’t have to perform them? Can’t we all agree that contraception should be available? Can’t we all agree that we aren’t going to put women in jail or give them the death penalty if she gets an abortion?” Haley asked.
No state law jails, much less threatens to execute, women who have an abortion.
Pro-life advocates pushed back strongly on Haley’s comments. “We can all agree that life begins at conception,” responded Family Research Council. “We can all agree that everyone has a right to life.”
“Consensus is the opposite of leadership,” said Pence, who also took exception with Burgum’s view. “It’s not a states-only issue. It’s a moral issue.”
Live Action president and founder Lila Rose called Haley’s answer “a sad attempt at gaslighting,” because “every position on every issue requires bold leadership to persuade” lawmakers. “Banning the killing of babies is a no-brainer.”
Rose described promoting contraception as “backwards and out of touch,” because hormonal contraception harms women’s health and “feeds promiscuity culture.” Pro-life scholar Michael J. New of Catholic University of America questioned the efficacy of promoting contraception to “reduce abortion rates,” since the Guttmacher Institute’s data show that “about half of women obtaining abortions were using some form of contraception the month they conceived.”
DeSantis told Hannity it is the Left that holds extreme positions on abortion, a fact obscured by most media coverage. “If you ask them, ‘When does the child get protection, at nine months?’ they will not give an answer. When we point this out, the corporate media, the liberal media, they run interference for the Democrats. They attack us for being pro-life and then they go to the Democrats and act like the Democrats aren’t taking very, very extreme positions.”
Some questioned the topics chosen for discussion by Fox News, which has moved inexorably leftward over the last few years. One of the first questions asked candidates whether they believed in man-made climate change and demanded they reassure young voters that they would take action, which usually means national (or international) regulations and restrictions on average Americans’ appliances and vehicles.
Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie seemed surprised when asked for his position on recent revelations about the possible existence of UFOs.
“Fox popped the UFO question but not ‘should we keep transitioning children?’” noted detransitioner Chloe Cole, who had a double mastectomy as a minor, only to return to her own gender identity.
With the moderators MacCallum and Baier focused on such issues, the candidates brought up their own commitment to biblical values.
“Our nation was founded upon the Judeo-Christian values that has made this the greatest nation on God’s green Earth. I’m a big believer in Ephesians 3:20, that ‘God is able to do exceedingly, abundantly above all that we ask or imagine,’” said Tim Scott while discussing the crisis in America’s public schools, where learning loss from the COVID-19 shutdowns has persisted. “The only way we change education in this nation is to break the backs of the teachers unions.”
Surging conservative candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, who drew the largest number of attacks, said, “Part of the problem is that we also have a federal government that pays single women more not to have a man in the house than to have a man in the house, contributing to an epidemic of fatherlessness. I think that goes hand-in-glove with the education crisis, as well, because we have to remember education starts with the family, and the nuclear family is the greatest form of governance known to mankind.”
Scott also raised “the weaponization of the Department of Justice against political opponents,” and “against parents who show up at school board meetings. They’re called ‘domestic terrorists.’ … In addition to that, we see the SWAT team show up at pro-life activists’ homes,” such as Mark Houck of Pennsylvania, “with guns drawn.”
DeSantis mentioned his faith in his post-debate remarks to Hannity. “I’m loyal to my family, the Constitution, and the Lord our God,” the governor said, when asked about his loyalty to Trump, who skipped the debate in favor of an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
To qualify for the debate stage, candidates had to earn at least 1% support in three national polls, or two national polls and one poll from one of the first four state contests: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, or South Carolina. They also had to receive campaign donations from at least 40,000 donors, composed of at least 200 donors in 20 selected states or territories. They also had to sign a pledge to support the eventual Republican Party presidential candidate. Yet Christie and Asa Hutchinson explained they would not keep that promise if Trump is the nominee.
California Governor Gavin Newsom (D) cited the debate’s limited exchanges on social issues to fundraise. Newsom, a possible 2024 presidential hopeful, denounced the “clown car of a debate,” where “candidates fight over who is more dedicated to oppressing the LGBT community and who will most loudly deny the results of free and fair elections.”
The debate in the swing state of Wisconsin, where the last two presidential elections have turned on less than 30,000 votes, “made it clear who is and is not prepared to be a National Defender of Life,” said SBA Pro-Life America President Marjorie Dannenfelser. “They understand that where you live should never determine whether you live.”
“The position taken by candidates like Doug Burgum, that life is solely a matter for the states, is unacceptable for a nation founded on unalienable rights and for a presidential contender. Mike Pence, Tim Scott, and Asa Hutchinson each offered a clear, bold case for national protections for the unborn at least by 15 weeks, when they can feel pain, which aligns with the overwhelming consensus of Americans,” she said.
“Going on offense is essential for any candidate who wants to win in 2024.”
Ben Johnson is senior reporter and editor at The Washington Stand.