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The GOP’s Abortion Evasions
How the 2024 contenders are navigating the pro-choice backlash.
AS A PRO-CHOICE BACKLASH against the Dobbs decision sweeps across the country—defeating pro-life ballot measures, passing pro-choice referenda, and taking down Republican candidates—the GOP is scrambling for safe ground. The National Republican Senatorial Committee is telling candidates to oppose a federal abortion ban. The chairwoman of the Republican National Committee is advising them to settle for “reasonable limitations.”
In the Republican presidential race, the two men who stoutly advocated a federal ban on abortions—Mike Pence and Tim Scott—are gone. The candidates who remain on the debate stage or who don’t need it—Chris Christie, Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Donald Trump—are hedging or downplaying the issue. They still call themselves pro-life. But they’re finding ways to pretend that they’re not a threat to abortion rights.
Here’s a look at their evasive maneuvers.
1. The Trump shtick: I’ll negotiate something, and you’ll love it.
Trump’s favorite word, when talking about abortion, is “negotiate.” He describes the issue as though it were a business deal, with each side bargaining over how many weeks of gestation should be allowed before the procedure is outlawed.
Two months ago on Meet the Press, Trump called Florida’s ban on abortion at six weeks, which was signed by DeSantis last year, “a terrible thing.” We shouldn’t make too much of that comment; it probably just reflected what Trump cares about most on this issue: not babies or women, but bashing DeSantis. Beyond that, Trump has refused to be nailed down. “I would sit down with both sides and I’d negotiate something,” he told NBC’s Kristen Welker. “We will agree to a number of weeks, which will be where both sides will be happy.”
That sounds a lot like Trump’s fantasy about settling the Ukraine-Russia war in twenty-four hours. He won’t tell you what the deal is; he just swears he’ll get it done.
Who should legislate this solution? Trump is indifferent. “It could be state or it could be federal. I don’t frankly care,” he told Welker. He added: “I’m almost like a mediator in this case.”
This pose fits Trump perfectly. He puts himself in the middle of the story, claims credit for an imaginary solution, and avoids responsibility for either side’s position.
2. The Ramaswamy shtick: I’m a Tenth Amendment absolutist.
Last Tuesday, as pro-lifers absorbed electoral defeats in Ohio, Kentucky, and Virginia, Ramaswamy was asked on CNN whether as president he would “sign a federal abortion ban into law.” He answered: “I would not. And the reason why is I’m a Tenth Amendment absolutist. . . . This should not be a federal issue.”
The Tenth Amendment says, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” In other words, because the Constitution doesn’t explicitly say the federal government can regulate abortion, Ramaswamy would stay out of it.
But Ramaswamy is not, in fact, a Tenth Amendment absolutist. For instance, in the Sept. 27 Republican presidential debate, he pledged that as president, “I will ban genital mutilation or chemical castration under the age of 18.”
The Constitution is just as silent about transgender pills or surgery as it is about abortion. But banning transgender procedures on minors is popular, while banning abortion is unpopular. That’s why Ramaswamy says he’ll outlaw one but not the other. He’s not an absolutist. He’s an opportunist.
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3. The DeSantis shtick: It’s a bottom-up issue.
Last Wednesday, after the GOP’s bad election night, the Republican presidential candidates were asked in a debate what their party should do about abortion. “I understand that some of these states are doing it a little bit different,” said DeSantis. “Texas is not going to do it the same as New Hampshire. Iowa’s not necessarily going to do it the same as Virginia. So you’ve got to work from the bottom up.”
After the debate, when DeSantis was asked whether “a national ban should be off the table,” he didn’t answer. Instead, he said, “If you look at the practical reality of a divided country, it’s going to be a bottom-up situation. That’s just the reality, regardless of what you think.”
That sounds like deference to states. But in fact, DeSantis made no commitment to stay out of the issue as president. He has previously said that he would sign a federal ban at fifteen weeks and would support any “pro-life legislation” that comes to his desk. This week, when he was asked at an Iowa pro-life forum whether “there’s a federal role” in restricting abortion, he replied, “Of course there is.”
The “bottom-up” message is a ruse. DeSantis is quite willing to ban abortions from the top down.
4. The Christie shtick: Don’t short-circuit the states.
“For fifty years, conservative lawyers have been arguing that the federal government should have absolutely nothing to do with this issue,” Christie pointed out in last week’s debate. “Now we have people running to say, ‘Let’s short-circuit the states . . . and let’s go right to some type of federal ban.’” He went on: “This is an issue that should be decided in each state . . . and we should not short-circuit that process until every state’s people have the right to weigh in.”
The key word here is until. Christie isn’t promising never to sign a federal ban. He’s saying he wouldn’t do that until all the states have had a chance to act. In a CNN interview last week, he conceded that he might sign a federal law imposing a new gestational limit on abortions, but only “if at some point there was a clear consensus amongst all fifty states”—and “I don’t see that happening anytime soon.”
Essentially, Christie is saying he’ll wait and see. If tightening the gestational limit becomes popular across the country, he’ll do it. Otherwise, he won’t. This isn’t about respecting the states. It’s about not sticking his neck out.
5. The Haley shtick: Be honest.
“You have to be honest with the American people,” Haley said in the debate. “When it comes to the federal law . . . be honest: It’s going to take sixty Senate votes, a majority of the House, and a president to sign it.” That’s highly unlikely, she noted, since “we haven’t had sixty Senate votes in over a hundred years. We might have forty-five pro-life senators. So no Republican president can ban abortions.”
Haley kept coming back to the H-word. “You have to be honest with the American people,” she repeated. “I will sign anything where we can get sixty Senate votes, but don’t make the American people think that you’re going to push something on them, when we don’t even have the votes in the Senate. It’s important that we’re honest about that.”
This is classic Haley: dressing up her cynicism as virtue. She’s signaling to pro-choicers that a federal ban wouldn’t reach her desk, and therefore it’s safe to vote for her. Meanwhile, she’s pretending that her reason for sending this signal is candor, not calculation. Haley’s whole game on abortion is to parrot pro-choice language—“This is personal for every woman,” “I don’t judge anyone,” “We don’t need to divide America over this issue”—while telling pro-lifers she’ll “save as many babies as we can.” She’s not being honest. She’s being strategic, disingenuous, and pious.
WHICH OF THESES CANDIDATES, beneath their respective façades, is most likely to ban abortions? Here’s my best guess. DeSantis signed the strictest ban as governor, and he’s doing the least to conceal that he’d do more as president. Haley, despite her pro-choice mimicry, would sign any abortion restriction that reaches her desk. Christie is the candidate least likely to sign a ban, since he has set the highest threshold for acting without a consensus of the states. I’m excluding Ramaswamy, who can’t be trusted.
As for Trump: He doesn’t care about this issue at all. He views pro-lifers as an interest group, like the dairy industry. He thinks that by ending Roe v. Wade and giving them the “power to negotiate,” he has sufficiently bought them off. And so far, he seems to be right.