Where the Republican presidential candidates stand on abortion
Perhaps no issue is thornier for the 2024 Republican presidential primary candidates than abortion.
Republicans widely cheered the 2022 Supreme Court decision, Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health, that overturned Roe v. Wade. But since then, they have found that going too far on abortion restrictions can be a political liability.
The Dobbs decision and subsequent state-level laws restricting abortion access galvanized voters who support abortion rights. Every state ballot measure on abortion rights since Dobbs has come out in favor of abortion rights, even in red states like Kansas, Kentucky and Ohio.
On top of that, the GOP's opposition to abortion rights has been blamed for Republican underperformance in the 2022 midterms, and November's elections in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Ohio.
As a result, Republican presidential candidates are attempting a balancing act: how to appeal to a party base that, to varying degrees, opposes abortion rights, without alienating moderates, independents and general election voters who favor fewer restrictions. The result has been many broad statements about "protecting life," without a whole lot of specifics about exactly what restrictions candidates favor.
For example, former President Donald Trump, the leading Republican candidate, has dodged the question of whether he supports a federal abortion ban, not to mention what kind of gestational limits he supports.
Meanwhile, Democrats see protecting abortion rights not only as a moral imperative but as a way to drive voters to the polls in 2024. Abortion rights advocates are working to put measures protecting access to the procedure onto ballots in 2024 in several swing states, in the hopes of energizing voters.
President Biden has never been a passionate crusader for abortion rights. But since Dobbs, he has been more willing to campaign on the issue. The question is how much it continues to drive voters in 2024, and to what degree other issues – concerns about the economy, Biden and Trump's age, foreign conflicts – take over the conversation.
Does the candidate support a federal abortion ban?
The highest-profile question on abortion that candidates face is whether they would back a federal abortion ban. Before he dropped out of the race, former Vice President Mike Pence challenged his competitors to sign on to a 15-week federal ban, and several did. (Candidates have given a range of answers on how many weeks the cutoff for such a ban would be; that is addressed in another section below.)
Trump has been particularly evasive on the question, however. He has been asked about a federal ban several times, and while he has never said "no" outright, he has also continually refused to back a federal abortion ban.
That said, he once did back a federal ban – during the 2016 campaign, he promised to sign a 20-week federal ban if it came to his desk as president, and in 2018, President Trump pushed Congress to pass such a ban.
So what gestational limits, if any, does the candidate support?
Since Dobbs, states have passed a variety of laws about how much to restrict abortion, giving candidates many opportunities to either praise or criticize a range of restrictions. In addition, some of the candidates signed abortion bans as governors or supported restrictions as legislators. Below are the various levels of abortion restrictions that candidates either currently support or have supported in the past.
Does the candidate support restrictions on medication abortion?
Prior to the Dobbs decision, medication abortion accounted for a majority of all abortions in the U.S. Since Dobbs, abortion rights activists have been helping patients, including those in states with tight restrictions, get access to the pills used in these abortions – misoprostol and mifepristone. One method is to send the pills to patients through the mail. In response, some states have passed laws attempting to limit access to those pills.
The president has some power to restrict or expand access to the pills – Biden, for example, signed an executive order in early 2023 that protected access to medication abortion via telehealth appointments, and that also allowed pharmacies to distribute the pills.
As president, Trump pushed to restrict medication abortion during the COVID-19 pandemic, asking the Supreme Court to require patients to visit a health care provider in order to receive the medication.
The candidates have said little about whether and how they would hope to restrict access to the pills as president. NPR reached out to all campaigns about their stance on this topic and has not received responses.
What about exceptions in the case of rape, incest or the life of the pregnant person?
While Republicans generally oppose abortion rights, many believe there should be specific cases in which a patient should have broad abortion access – in particular, when a pregnancy results from rape or incest, or when an abortion would save a pregnant patient's life.
Those three exceptions are popular among the Republican candidates, but some have supported or signed laws that either do not contain all three exceptions, or that contain them to limited extents. Still, all of the remaining major candidates agree in providing those popular exceptions. But, there is nuance among their positions.
- Gov. Doug Burgum, R-N.D., signed a near-total abortion ban in North Dakota that included very limited exceptions for rape and incest, allowing victims of those crimes to get abortions only up to six weeks of gestation. That law also allowed for abortion in cases that would save a patient's life or prevent severe medical harm.
- Former Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J., told Semafor in April 2023 that he supports exceptions in these three cases.
- Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., signed a six-week abortion ban that included exceptions for rape and incest up to 15 weeks if a patient could provide documentation. The ban also contained an exception to save a patient's life.
- As governor of South Carolina, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley signed an abortion ban that contained an exception to save a patient's life, but no exceptions for rape or incest. However, in June, a spokesperson said she would sign a bill that included those exceptions.
- Vivek Ramaswamy has said he supports exceptions in these three cases, according to Reuters.
- Former President Donald Trump has repeatedly said on the campaign trail this cycle that he supports these three exceptions.
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