WASHINGTON — The Biden-Harris 2024 presidential campaign marked the 51st anniversary of Roe v. Wade with another volley of verbal shots on President Donald Trump’s abortion record.
These attacks are highlighting a problematic reality for pro-life Americans as the 2024 election unfolds: While Democrats have a unified pro-abortion-rights message that they believe will attract moderate and independent voters, the Republican Party is struggling to find a coherent alternative to counter this narrative.
A new campaign ad blamed Trump for a Texas law that forced a female physician to leave the state for an abortion after her unborn child was diagnosed with a fatal condition.
And as Trump and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley faced off in the Republican primaries, Biden hammered the former president for nominating three Supreme Court justices who, in 2022, overturned Roe v. Wade, which made access to abortion a federal constitutional right.
“Let’s remember, it was Donald Trump and his Supreme Court who ripped away the rights and freedoms of women in America,” Biden charged at a Jan. 23 rally in Manassas, Virginia. “It will be Joe Biden and Kamala D. Harris and all of you who will restore those rights.”
As Biden seeks a second presidential term, he has adopted the same playbook that helped his party score unexpected midterm election wins in 2022.
In short, he is looking for every opportunity to hold Trump accountable for the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling that laid the groundwork for the passage of 21 state laws restricting abortion. Indeed, the White House recently announced that Kate Cox, a Texas woman who has challenged a state law that barred her from obtaining an abortion after her unborn child was diagnosed with a rare chromosomal disorder, will be first lady Jill Biden’s guest at the State of the Union address March 7.
But even as “reproductive freedom” takes center stage in the president’s reelection effort, the GOP has yet to coalesce around a compelling, unified message that will mobilize social conservatives, while diffusing the fury unleashed by the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health decision that overturned Roe.
This month, in a bid to recharge GOP energies on life issues, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., urged lawmakers and voters to “fight for a compassionate, pro-family agenda that counters caricatures of our beliefs and makes life easier for mothers and their children.”
Rubio outlined these goals in a memo circulated to Senate colleagues. He pointed to a string of pro-life defeats in seven state-ballot referenda on abortion and acknowledged that “some have looked at these losses and concluded that being pro-life is a losing position.”
Rubio dismissed such doubts and directed pro-life Republican to boldly expose both Democrats’ “extreme support for abortion” and the real “truth about what abortion is.”
That message is designed to buoy the spirits of pro-life leaders like National Right to Life President Carol Tobias, who have witnessed a surge of “energy” on life issues at the state level and want to keep that momentum alive.
“States have passed laws that protect unborn children, and now we need to focus more on pregnancy centers and let people know there are more options,” Tobias told the Register.
Seeking a Coherent Narrative
But Rubio’s pro-life call to arms has yet to catch fire, and legal and political analysts contacted by the Register confirmed that the GOP is still looking for a way to develop a unified message on abortion.
“There’s an absence of a consistent and a coherent narrative on how to protect the unborn,” Sarah Parshall Perry, a Heritage Foundation fellow, told the Register. And at the same time, there is “a great deal of misunderstanding on where the party needs to go next and can go next,” at both the state and federal level.
Last year, pro-life activists were eager to see the party and its 2024 presidential nominee press for federal legislation that limited abortions to the first 15 weeks of pregnancy across all 50 states. But early in the campaign season there were signs of trouble, with growing fears that a federal effort could damage GOP candidates in down-ballot races.
In August 2023, a crowded field of Republican presidential hopefuls weighed the feasibility of a federal 15-week ban but never agreed to a concrete goal.
Former Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., backed this proposal.
Haley, who signed a law restricting abortions to the first 20 weeks of pregnancy while governor of South Carolina, dismissed the idea as a non-starter, given GOP’s tenuous hold on Congress. Haley argued for what she saw as more achievable goals.
“Can’t we all agree that we should ban late-term abortions?” she asked. “Can’t we all agree that we should encourage adoptions? Can’t we all agree that doctors and nurses who don’t believe in abortions shouldn’t have to perform them? Can’t we agree that contraception should be available?”
Trump did not participate in the GOP presidential debates, but during an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press in September, he attacked Florida’s new law restricting abortion to the first six weeks of pregnancy as a “terrible mistake,” and he has also expressed doubt about a 15-week ban.
Those public comments dismayed his pro-life allies.
“We’re at a moment where we need a human-rights advocate, someone who is dedicated to saving the lives of children and serving mothers in need, “ Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, said at the time. “Every single candidate should be clear on how they plan to do that.”
Dannenfelser did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Now, as the number of GOP presidential contenders has shrunk to two — Trump and Haley — life issues are getting less attention, and pro-life advocates have been forced to reset expectations.
During a Jan. 11 Fox News town hall in Des Moines, Iowa, Trump boasted, “Nobody has done more” to protect unborn life. But he emphasized that the party still needed to craft a consensus position that would win at the ballot box. “Otherwise,” he warned, “you are going to be back where you were and you can’t let that ever happen again. You have to win elections.”
It’s still not clear how the Republican base and the pro-life movement in particular will respond to Trump’s hesitancy on abortion, particularly when Democrats smear advocates of abortion restrictions as “extremists.”
But Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life, told the Register that Trump had earned the movement’s trust by sticking to the promises he made during his 2016 presidential campaign.
“Donald Trump prides himself on keeping his deals,” she said.
And this time around, her organization has pressed the former president to commit to reversing the Biden administration’s efforts to expand access to chemical abortions in states that have restricted the procedure.
If elected, “Trump will appoint pro-life leaders to the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services,” said Hawkins.
Voters Have Other Priorities
But while Hawkins and her allies seek a more robust GOP agenda on life issue, recent polling suggests that abortion has receded as a major concern for many Americans.
In both Iowa and New Hampshire, immigration and the economy were top of mind for voters.
The Washington Post’s exit polls at the Iowa Caucuses found that about 1 in 10 voters viewed abortion as “the most important issue, ” though the Post’s entrance polling found that “about 6 in 10 Iowa Republicans said they would favor a federal law banning most or all abortions nationwide.”
In New Hampshire, Trump won the votes of self-described conservatives by more than 40 points. But a large portion of independents also took part in the GOP primary, and that may explain why AP VoteCast reported that 54% of voters said abortion should be legal in most or all cases. By contrast, The Wall Street Journal’s pollsters reported that only a “third of GOP voters nationwide say abortion should be mostly legal.”
Michael New, an analyst at The Catholic University of America, confirmed that the GOP faces significant challenges with respect to the abortion issue as it secures a presidential nominee and prepares for a general election.
“Polling consistently shows that Americans are conflicted on sanctity-of-life issues,” New told the Register. “Abortion bans that do not contain exceptions for scenarios involving rape or incest usually do not poll well.” At the same time, “most Americans are comfortable with laws that would protect preborn children after the first trimester.”
Further, New noted broad public support for “parental-involvement laws and limits on taxpayer funding of abortion.” Republicans can build on these measures, he suggested, even as Democrats move to “the left on abortion,” legalizing the procedure throughout pregnancy and blocking the Hyde Amendment, which limits the ability of the federal government to fund abortion through Medicaid.
That said, New agreed that the GOP could continue to accomplish much more at the state level. Post-Dobbs, a slew of Republican governors seeking reelection, including Florida’s Ron DeSantis, Georgia’s Brian Kemp and Texas’ Greg Abbott, signed pro-life bills, and all of them won.
The Democrats’ Focus
New’s remarks provide further context for the challenges that lie ahead as the action shifts from party primaries to the general election.
Vice President Harris has been tapped to lead the Democrats’ messaging on abortion, and she has already begun to visit swing states and schedule media appearances that target Trump actions and rhetoric.
During a Jan. 22 CNN interview, Harris cited Trump’s expression of “pride” at his pro-life bona fides and used his comments against him.
“By inference, he is proud that women have been deprived of fundamental freedoms to make decisions about their own body,” Harris told CNN. “So, let’s understand that the stakes are so very high.”
At the same time, Democrats will seek fresh opportunities to paint state laws restricting abortion as unjust and politically extreme. Women who have been denied an abortion in difficult cases will be given a platform to tell their stories. And this spring, Democrats will spotlight two new abortion cases before the U.S. Supreme Court that will give Biden a fresh opportunity to demonstrate his commitment to “reproductive health.”
The goal is to put the GOP’s presidential nominee, and other Republican candidates, on the defensive, giving them little time to present the party’s pro-life vision and goals — a possibility that worries pro-life advocates.
“I want our candidate to acknowledge the centrality of abortion and to take the necessary steps” to support life, Teresa Collett, the University of St. Thomas law professor who co-authored a high-profile amicus brief for the Dobbs case, told the Register.
But Collett was also realistic about the likely accomplishments of a Republican president and echoed Hawkins’ expectations that a Republican would reverse Biden’s executive orders and related administrative rulings that promote abortion and sharply restrict conscience rights.
Over the past three years, the Justice Department has sued states such as Idaho that passed restrictions on the procedure, and the White House has rolled back Trump-era conscience protections for health-care workers.
Pro-life activists also expect a Republican administration to support embattled pregnancy centers and challenge the anti-life rhetoric in the public square.
“Republicans simply must get better at explaining that they believe both the innocent child in the womb and the pregnant mother deserve better than abortion,” Alexandra DeSanctis, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, told the Register.
But as the GOP hesitates, the White House continues to launch new initiatives that present Biden as a stalwart defender of abortion rights, with Harris as his mouthpiece.
Personalize the Pro-Life Position
News headlines amplify Harris’ message, and pro-life activists are eager for the GOP to offer a confident response that includes stories spotlighting inconvenient truths.
“We definitely need to personalize our position on abortion,” said Students for Life’s Hawkins, who meets regularly with college students, a key Democratic constituency, and who has heard the testimonials of young people conceived through sexual assault. “The tragic fact is we all know someone who has been conceived in less-than-ideal circumstances, and we need to highlight their stories.”
“We also need to do a better job of going on offense, as well,” Hawkins concluded. “The Democrats believe they have the moral high ground when they advocate for abortion in cases of rape. But what you quickly find is that they use the pain of rape survivors to justify the 97% of abortions that occur for reasons of convenience.
“Republicans need to expose that.”