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GOP presidential hopefuls are jockeying for position on abortion

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley spoke about her abortion policy Tuesday in Arlington, Va.Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

ARLINGTON, Va. — Republican presidential hopeful Nikki Haley walked into the Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America offices on Tuesday to lead a “constructive” conversation about where the country should go on abortion.

“My goal as president will be the same as it was when I was governor and ambassador. I want to save as many lives and help as many moms as possible,” Haley, the only woman seeking the Republican nomination, said to a room packed mostly with reporters.

She didn’t say how. Instead, she staked out a vague position in which she promised she wouldn’t “judge someone who is pro-choice any more than I want them to judge me for being pro-life,” called for consensus on policies like not jailing women who get abortions, and said the federal government should have some role in regulating abortions. She expanded on little and took no questions.

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Haley’s public position, which seemed to have an eye toward the general electorate beyond the primary, is the latest example of the difficulty Republican candidates are having as they seek to carve out a lane on one of the most pressing issues in the country. Since the Supreme Court overturned the federal right to an abortion last year, it’s become a top issue on the minds of the electorate. And the Republican Party has been left to figure out how to navigate the aftermath and remain politically viable, as abortion access has repeatedly proven to be popular with voters.

One of the details left unaddressed by Haley was her position on a national ban after 15 weeks, but that omission wasn’t unnoticed. Less than two hours after the conclusion of her speech, SBA Pro-Life America sent out a statement informing reporters that Haley “supported protecting unborn children by at least 15 weeks.”

Ken Farnaso, press secretary for Haley’s campaign, told the Globe in a statement that “Nikki was very clear in her speech — she believes there is a federal role to play in protecting as many babies and helping as many moms as possible. She wants to work on finding national consensus on a host of pro-life positions, like banning late-term abortion.” He did not respond to a question about whether Haley supports the 15-week ban. But SBA Pro-Life America told the Globe that Haley had “assured” them she would support it.

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The issue of abortion will almost certainly remain at the forefront of political discourse, as a large portion of the country has rolled back abortion access on the state level, and challenges to some of those restrictions continue to play out in the courts. Just this month, for example, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a potential presidential candidate, signed a ban on abortions after six weeks in his state. And last week, the Supreme Court stepped in to block restrictions to mifepristone, a drug used in a common two-step regimen for abortions, as the rest of a case challenging its FDA approval plays out.

“This is going to play an increasingly important role in presidential elections going forward,” said Ken Spain, a Republican political strategist. “Republicans were clobbered on the issue last year, and now they’re in the stage of trying to figure out, how do you talk about this issue in a way that doesn’t turn off critical constituencies?”

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Haley is not the only Republican presidential hopeful to struggle with defining her position. Earlier this month, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, who has launched an exploratory committee for a potential run for president, also struggled to present a clear position on abortion issues while traveling in early states. While initially reluctant to answer questions about whether he would support a 15-week ban, he recently expressed support for it, and told NBC News that he would support the “most conservative pro-life legislation” sent to his desk if he were president.

Even former president Donald Trump has been tripped up on the issue. After suggesting the issue was the cause of his party’s lackluster midterm season, he drew backlash from antiabortion groups. And in a recent statement from Trump’s spokesman, the Trump campaign said he believes the issue should be left up to the states. That is not without its own risks, as the antiabortion wing of the party is also a key constituency in a Republican primary.

“President Trump’s assertion that the Supreme Court returned the issue of abortion solely to the states is a completely inaccurate reading of the Dobbs decision and is a morally indefensible position for a self-proclaimed pro-life presidential candidate to hold. Life is a matter of human rights, not states’ rights,” said SBA Pro-Life America president Marjorie Dannenfelser in a statement. “We will oppose any presidential candidate who refuses to embrace at a minimum a 15-week national standard to stop painful late-term abortions while allowing states to enact further protections.

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In a video played at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition forum over the weekend, after the backlash to his campaign’s statement, Trump touted his antiabortion credentials, and pointed to his Supreme Court choices as proof of his commitment to curbing abortion rights.

However, not all the GOP hopefuls are hedging their antiabortion comments.

“This isn’t a states-only decision,” former vice president Mike Pence, a potential candidate, said over the weekend in a Face the Nation interview, seeking to separate himself from his former boss. “I think the American people would welcome a minimum national standard in Washington, D.C., 15 weeks.”

A 15-week ban is an idea that mirrors a proposal introduced in Congress by Senator Lindsey Graham, but has otherwise not received much traction as Republicans regained control of the House after the 2022 midterms.

The hodgepodge of positions has left the party in a bind, after decades of opposing abortion in a largely symbolic way thanks to the longstanding Roe v. Wade precedent that stood for nearly 50 years. Now that that’s no longer in their way, they’re feeling the pressure.

“It’s been one of those issues where [Republicans] have not done a good enough job to make our case, and then you get caught into these extreme points of view and navigating through it,” Senator Mike Braun, a Republican from Indiana, told the Globe when asked about the broader politics of abortion. “And to be honest, you’re going to have to probably please the people in the middle that are trying to figure out what makes sense.”

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Meanwhile, Democrats have made their unity on abortion access a key selling point. At Howard University on Tuesday, Vice President Kamala Harris joined abortion rights advocacy groups for a rally supporting reproductive freedom, on the same day she and President Biden announced they would seek reelection.

“What’s happening in our country right now is that these extremist so-called leaders would dare to tell us what is in our own best interest. Well I say, I trust the women of America . . . to make decisions about [themselves],” Harris said. “So don’t get in our way because if you do, we’re going to stand up, and we’re going to organize, and we’re going to speak up, and we’re going to say, we’re not having that. We’re not playing that.”


Lissandra Villa Huerta can be reached at lissandra.villa@globe.com. Follow her @LissandraVilla.