2024 GOP Presidential Hopefuls Must Navigate Taking a Pro-Life Stand in a Post-Roe World

Pro-life presidential hopefuls are being called upon to defend unborn life by advocating for national abortion limits.

Who is likely to join the 2024 Republican field?
Who is likely to join the 2024 Republican field? (photo: Shutterstock)

WASHINGTON — The landmark Dobbs decision last June has ushered in a new era for pro-life presidential contenders: They are being called upon to state what abortion limits they would support at the federal level. 

Gone are the days when pro-life candidates could broadly promise to work to overturn Roe v. Wade. Thirteen states have enacted bans on abortion, and several other states have limited it to six weeks of pregnancy, when a heartbeat is detectable, or 15 weeks, while many states have moved to enshrine late-term abortion into their state’s constitution.

While polling consistently indicates that most Americans, even post-Dobbs, favor limiting abortion to, at most, the first 15 weeks of pregnancy, pro-life politicians have been cautious in navigating the issue as abortion battles in the states continue. Following a disappointing 2022 midterm election cycle for pro-life advocates, in which all five state pro-life ballot initiatives failed, pro-life groups have called for clear and strong messaging on the issue. 

The Republican National Committee passed a resolution in January urging candidates to “go on offense in the 2024 election cycle and expose the Democrats’ extreme position of supporting abortion on demand up until the moment of birth, paid for by the taxpayers, even supporting discriminatory abortions such as gender selection or when the child has been diagnosed with Down syndrome.” 

The resolution also called for lawmakers in state legislatures and in Congress to “pass the strongest pro-life legislation possible — such as laws that acknowledge the beating hearts and experiences of pain in the unborn — underscoring the new relics of barbarism the Democratic Party represents as we approach the 2024 cycle.”


Working Towards Consensus

What is the “strongest pro-life legislation possible” for a presidential candidate to back in the post-Roe landscape? Two of the GOP candidates who have formally announced their presidential bids, former President Donald Trump and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, do not have a specific answer just yet. They did not respond to questions from the Register regarding at what point in pregnancy they would back a federal abortion limit.

Haley told the Today show in February that “we need consensus on this,” in response to a question about a federal abortion ban. She added that she would not back “a full-out federal ban, because I don’t think that’s been put on the table.” She referenced the proposal from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., to ban abortion at 15 weeks, saying, “If we’re looking at 15 weeks, what we need to understand is we are not okay with abortion up until the time of birth, and so we should at least decide when is it okay.” 

During her tenure as governor of South Carolina in 2016, Haley signed a law banning abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, a point at which unborn babies can feel pain. Her campaign website points to her record of “standing for the unborn” as “one of the most pro-life governors in America.”

Trump laid the groundwork for the overturning of Roe v. Wade through his appointing of three pro-life justices to the Supreme Court during his presidency, and his campaign website states that “President Trump’s three appointees delivered the biggest win for life in a generation in overturning Roe v. Wade.”

In January, however, some in the pro-life movement were frustrated by a statement he made blaming the “abortion issue” for losses in the 2022 midterm elections. He claimed the issue was “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.” He also claimed that “people that pushed so hard, for decades, against abortion got their wish from the U.S. Supreme Court and just plain disappeared, not to be seen again.” 

Responding to Trump’s comments on the midterms, SBA Pro-Life America said in a statement that “the approach to winning on abortion in federal races, proven for a decade, is this: State clearly the ambitious consensus pro-life position and contrast that with the extreme view of Democrat opponents. We look forward to hearing that position fully articulated by Mr. Trump and all presidential candidates.”

A third GOP candidate who formally announced his bid last month, entrepreneur and author Vivek Ramaswamy, is “pro-life,” his spokeswoman Tricia McLaughlin told the Register via email, but “as a constitutional matter, he strongly agrees with the outcome of Dobbs and believes this is an issue for the states, not the federal government.”


A Federal ‘Human-Rights Issue’

Marilyn Musgrave, vice president of government affairs at SBA Pro-Life America, told the Register that the group has “very high expectations for the presidential candidates.” She reiterated her organization’s call for candidates to “clearly state that they will work for a national minimum standard in protecting life, whether that be pain-capable or heartbeat.”

Musgrave said that taking a clear stand on abortion is a “human-rights issue” and added that attempts to ignore it could be interpreted as “tacit support for the abortion-on-demand policies that we see from blue states like New York and California and Illinois.” She believed that the Republican presidential candidates should be “very comfortable” discussing a “national minimum standard” based on recent Marist polling on the issue showing that 69% of Americans support limiting abortion to, at most, the first three months of pregnancy.

“If a presidential candidate does not make it very clear that they will work for a national minimum standard, it’s a deal breaker for us,” she said. “If they say, ‘It just goes back to the states,’ we’re saying that means that you are really supporting the policies of New York, California, Illinois,” which allow abortion through all nine months of pregnancy.

Paul Kengor, a political science professor at Grove City College, told the Register that the Dobbs decision “changed the entire pro-life landscape, literally, by moving abortion largely to the states, though not totally. There are still legislative battles to be fought at the national level.”

He said there were “interesting dynamics” between Trump, Haley and likely candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on the issue, as Trump’s Supreme Court appointments “allowed abortion to be sent to the state level,” which “strengthened the pro-life hand of governors like DeSantis.” He thought there would ultimately be “pretty much full agreement” among the GOP front-runners on abortion and predicted “major fireworks” on the issue would occur once the Republican and Democratic nominees face off.


Crafting a Winning Strategy

Daniel Philpott, a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, pointed out that President Joe Biden certainly sees abortion as a federal issue, noting that he “called for the federal codification of Roe v. Wade” in his Feb. 7 State of the Union address.

He had some concerns about candidates supporting a national minimum at a point like 15 weeks in pregnancy, as the vast majority of abortions happen before 13 weeks. The most recently available Centers for Disease Control data show that 93.1% of abortions are performed before 13 weeks in pregnancy. If you make the national standard at 15 weeks, he said, “you just end up authorizing the overwhelming preponderance of abortions.” 

Philpott also noted the difficulties of reaching moderates on the issue and wondered if the candidates might “try to strongly declare themselves to be pro-life and garner that vote, but refrain from specifics because they don’t want to destroy their moderate consensus.”

He thought a “winning strategy” for the GOP nominee could include a recent pro-life proposal to make birth free. He said such measures, including providing “health care after birth, childcare, pregnancy leave, reforms that make adoption more affordable and attractive, and more aggressive efforts to collect child support for birth fathers” would be “not only good in themselves, but would do a lot to build a national consensus." 

The assurance that pro-life politicians are “really trying to care for pregnant mothers,” he argued, would make the public more open to limits on abortion.  


Potential Candidates’ Views

Among the crowded field of those who have not yet announced a presidential bid but are expected to make one, former Vice President Mike Pence has been the one to explicitly call for every state to make abortion illegal nationwide post-Roe. Speaking March 3 at the Students for Life Post-Roe Generation Gala, Pence told those gathered that “our law should reflect that unborn babies are human beings owed the full protection of the law and the country.”

DeSantis recently backed an early pro-life protection by committing to signing a proposal from the Florida Legislature to ban abortion at six weeks in pregnancy, when the unborn baby’s heartbeat is detectable. He signed a 15-week abortion limit in the state following the Dobbs decision. 

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, another rumored 2024 candidate, told CBS that she was “proud” of her state’s total ban on abortion, with a life-of-the-mother exception. She said she “would nudge every governor to do what they can to back up their pro-life record” because “talking about situations and making statements is incredibly important, but also taking action and governing and bringing policies that protect life are even more important because that’s what truly will save lives.” 

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott also may join the GOP 2024 field. His state successfully enacted a law banning abortion after detection of the fetal heartbeat prior to the Dobbs decision. Abbott signed a law following the Dobbs decision making abortion illegal with an exception for saving the life of the mother. 

“An abortion is taking the life of a baby,” Abbott said in September, “and our goal in passing the laws that were passed is to protect the lives of those babies.” 

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, another potential 2024 GOP presidential hopeful, was frustrated in January by Democratic state senators voting down a proposal to ban abortion at 15 weeks. He said lawmakers refused “to listen to Virginians, and over 80% of Virginians have expressed the view that Republicans and Democrats should find consensus on this issue.” 

He attended the Virginia March for Life in February, saying that “the March for Life is a way to express my view that Virginians elected a pro-life governor.”

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who is reported to be weighing a 2024 presidential bid, has not commented on a national abortion limit or his South Carolina colleague Graham’s proposal to ban abortion nationwide at 15 weeks. 

Last year, The New York Times noted, in a story looking at social conservatives embracing childcare benefits post-Roe, that Scott introduced a measure that “would subsidize childcare for families earning up to 150% of their state’s median income.” He has a pro-life voting record in the Senate; and prior to the Dobbs decision, he spoke out against Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s economic case for abortion, citing his own mother’s strength in choosing life despite poverty.


Leaving It to the States

Former CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who is also viewed as a 2024 GOP presidential hopeful, told a reporter last month regarding a national abortion limit that, “for a decade or so, I worked hard to return the authority to the states,” and “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.”

Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who could also join the race for the GOP presidential nomination, backed his state’s abortion ban, but later criticized its lack of exceptions for rape and incest. He told Meet the Press in June regarding a national abortion ban, “I don’t believe that we ought to go back to saying there ought to be a national law; that’s passed. We’ve fought for 50 years to have this returned to the states. We’ve won that battle. It’s back to the states. Let’s let it be resolved there.”

Some potential GOP presidential hopefuls are supportive of most abortions. Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire describes himself as “pro-choice,” but backs some restrictions on late-term abortion. He signed a 2021 law banning abortion at 24 weeks in his state.