Takeaway From Republican Presidential Debate: What the Candidates Don’t Know About How to Discuss Abortion

By David N. O’Steen, Ph.D

Editor’s note. This appeared Monday in the September issue of National Right to Life News, the “pro-life newspaper of record. Please share the entire 40-page edition with your family and friends.

The first Republican presidential candidate debate gave a clear picture of the present state of the national political debate on abortion. The picture isn’t always pretty.

On the bright side, all of the candidates who debated are pro-life, though their positions and priorities may vary as is to be expected.  Former president Trump, who did not participate, has proven himself to be pro-life as well. Any of them would be preferable by a measure of light years to Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Michelle Obama, Gavin Newsom or anyone the Democratic party would nominate in 2024. 

It would be very irresponsible for any pro-life group to withhold support or endorsement from any of them, if they were the nominee, because they failed to adhere to some arbitrary litmus test.

None of the candidates seemed fully able to articulate either their own position or discuss the issue itself in a way that would win over and alleviate the fears of the tens of millions of voters in the middle on this issue.  Those are the people who polls show are actually closer to the pro-life position than to that of Planned Parenthood and the Democrats, but who believe abortion must be allowed in some instances. They will reject a “National Ban on Abortion” and reject candidates they believe would impose a “Ban. To this large fraction of the public, this term means no abortions, even to save women’s lives, or allowed in cases of rape or incest, or in case of a medical emergency.  Yet in a close race, without enough of their votes, we lose.

The specter of the “Ban” hung over the whole abortion discussion in the debate.  Unfortunately, one element of the pro-life movement and the pro-abortion Democrats seem to be in a de facto agreement that the 2024 abortion debate should center around a “Ban.” However such a measure cannot achieve the necessary 60 Senate votes to pass and will never make it to the next president’s desk. To her credit Nikki Haley tried to make that point.

Nonetheless the candidates’ position on a “Ban” was the question of the day. Never mind the detail that the actual proposal to “Ban” abortions at 15 weeks is no ban at all. 95% of abortions are already performed by 15 weeks and many of the remainder are for life of mother or medical  

emergency reasons. None of the candidates seemed to know these basic facts and use them to reassure those in the middle that no candidate was actually proposing to “Ban” all abortions. 

Don’t expect the Democrats to clarify this. As Democratic pollster Celinda Lake has pointed out, their polling 

has shown that their best strategy is to portray Republicans as supporting a Ban on Abortion. The pro-abortion press will be all too happy to carry that message into November unless the pro-life movement and its candidates can quickly and successfully manage to do a rhetorical about face. 

“Ban” is a powerful word that literally means to prohibit all, allow none, zero, zilch. The connotation of anything called a “Ban” to the average voter can be “absolutely no abortions allowed.” Of course, as we have seen, the 15 week “Ban” does no such thing.  

The pro-abortion movement, the Democratic party, its candidates and their media allies are working to cement that understanding into the collective mind of the American electorate.  Their incessant campaign is that Republican candidates will impose a “National Ban on Abortion”.  Having the 15 week “Ban” front and center in the campaign plays right into that pro-abortion/Democratic strategy.

National Right to Life’s own polling has shown that over 80% of the public believes abortion should be allowed in each of the cases mentioned above, namely, to save the life of the mother, in cases of rape or incest, and in case of a medical emergency. These folks obviously oppose a “National Ban on Abortion” and it’s hard to win an election when 80+% of the voters disagree with you on a very major issue.

It’s very likely that many or most of the candidates in the first debate agree with allowing abortion in those instances, which collectively account for about 5% of all abortions. In fact the 

Heartbeat law recently passed in Florida and signed by Governor DeSantis and the one passed in South Carolina, home to Nikki Haley and Tim Scott, both contained these four exceptions. 

However no candidate articulated a position accepting these exceptions. Doing so would have gone a long way towards picking up the support of those who don’t want a “Ban” but don’t support abortion being used for birth control or a method of family planning.

Last March the McLaughlin Group conducted a nationwide poll for National Right to Life which asked:

Would you support or oppose allowing abortion only under these four circumstances?

1)  When it is necessary to save the life of the mother

2)  When there is a medical emergency posing serious risk of substantial irreversible physical harm to the mother

3)  In cases of rape

4)  In cases of incest

Seventy two percent said they would support that proposal!   

The NRL McLaughlin poll asked about the same proposal  a different way.   The same respondents were asked if they would support “prohibiting” abortion “except” in the same four

circumstances listed above. 

The results? Support dropped to 57.7%, a drop of over 14%!  Why?  Because instead of hearing that the abortions they felt were necessary would be allowed, those in the middle first heard that abortions would be prohibited, which created a negative mindset.  If “banning” had been used in the question instead of “prohibiting” support would most likely have dropped even further.

A Heartbeat question was also included in the McLaughlin poll.  Respondents were asked:

Would you support or oppose allowing abortion only before six weeks when there is no detectable heartbeat and later only under these four circumstances?

1)  When it is necessary to save the life of the mother

2)  When there is a medical emergency posing serious risk of substantial irreversible physical harm to the mother

3)  In cases of rape

4)  In cases of incest

Sixty four percent supported this Heartbeat proposal which essentially describes the Florida and South Carolina laws.  Compare that to the results the press loves to publicize when the question is just about a “six week abortion Ban”. 

Of course such laws are not bans at all since about 45% to 50% of abortions are performed before six weeks of pregnancy.

Pro-abortion Democrats have made their Congressional goals very clear.  They plan to enlarge and pack the Supreme Court to overturn the Dobbs decision and reinstate a constitutional 

“right to abortion”.  They plan to pass a national “abortion with no limits until birth” law and they would love to make Washington DC a state thereby gaining two additional pro-abortion Democratic senators.

That parade of horribles which could put any protection for unborn children out of reach for many, many decades can happen.  The Democrats only need to regain the House, hold a majority in the Senate sufficient to end the filibuster and hold the presidency.

That can’t be allowed to happen!  The children’s very best hope is for every pro-life group to make the upcoming elections The priority and to not only work hard, but to work smart. That  includes helping pro-life candidates learn how to present  their position in terms that will win over those voters whose  views are really closer to the pro-life position than its opposite, even if they don’t know it yet.

It also includes not forcing pro-life candidates to take useless positions that will drive those very voters away.