Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley on Tuesday acknowledged the steep challenge Republicans face in trying to enact hardline national restrictions but said she believed the federal government should play a role in regulating the procedure and called for a “constructive conversation” on the polarizing issue.
She argued that the next president of the United States would need to find “national consensus” on abortion.
“No Republican president will have the ability to ban abortion nationwide,” Haley said at the SBA Pro-Life America headquarters in Arlington, Virginia – a group that has said it will oppose any presidential candidate who doesn’t support a 15-week national abortion ban. “We have to face this reality. The pro-life laws that have passed in strongly Republican states will not be approved at the federal level.”
Haley, who emphasized she is “unapologetic” and “unhesitant” about her anti-abortion views, notably did not endorse a 15-week ban or specify what kind of national ban she would support.
Her remarks came as abortion emerges as a central issue among 2024 Republican hopefuls, who want to attract GOP base voters who favor strict anti-abortion policies without alienating more moderate voters ahead of the general election.
“I do believe there is a federal role on abortion,” Haley said. “Whether we can save more lives nationally depends entirely on doing what no one has done to date – finding consensus. That’s what I will strive to do.”
She pointed to a bill she signed as governor of South Carolina that made it illegal for a woman in the state to obtain an abortion after her pregnancy reaches 20 weeks.
“My record on abortion is long and clear,” she said.
Since the overturning of Roe v. Wade last summer, the Republican Party has struggled at times to maneuver the politics of abortion. Democrats had a stronger-than-expected showing in the 2022 midterms as they tapped into supporters of abortion rights, who were motivated in the wake of the high court’s ruling and as several conservative states moved to ban or severely restrict abortion. Conservative candidates have lost several competitive races, including a Wisconsin Supreme Court election earlier this month, in which abortion was a key issue.
A recent CBS poll showed that 58% of Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, which includes 62% of independent voters and 29% of Republicans.
On Tuesday, Haley noted in the wake of the US Supreme Court ruling that there is no constitutional right to an abortion different states in the nation have veered in sharply different directions on abortion.
“That’s what the founders of our country envisioned,” she said.
Abortion emerging as 2024 issue
Since former President Donald Trump’s early entry into the race last year, anti-abortion advocates have called on Republican presidential hopefuls to address the issue head on and plainly state their position, arguing that not doing so will repeat the losses in 2022, during which candidates ignored and flubbed their answers on abortion. Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel spoke in a recent speech about the importance of directly addressing the issue.
Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, warned that the organization will oppose any candidate who doesn’t support restricting abortion on the federal level at 15 weeks or less of pregnancy. The influential group, however, understands that it may take candidates some time to define their position and does not plan to announce who it will support until after the GOP primary debates.
“Anyone who wants to run for president or any federal office will have to satisfy that requirement or they won’t get the support of this movement,” she told CNN. “That healthy debate on that debate stage is where this will all be worked out in terms of who the candidate should be, and may the best man or woman win.”
Already, in a sign of SBA Pro-Life’s sway, Trump’s campaign on Friday backed off of its stance that abortion should be decided at the state level following the overturning of Roe v. Wade. A day after criticism from Dannenfelser, the Trump campaign said that the former president “believes it is in the States where the greatest advances can now take place to protect the unborn” and highlighted his appointments of three conservative justices to the Supreme Court.
Dannenfelser told CNN that Trump’s shift was “a movement in the right direction.”
Staking out positions
As the 2024 Republican presidential field forms, abortion is emerging as a key issue that could differentiate GOP candidates as they battle it out for their party’s nomination – with the clearest divide over whether there should be a federal ban on abortion.
Trump so far has not made abortion a key issue in his campaign and did not mention it once in his reelection launch speech in November. The former president has instead been preoccupied with his legal entanglements and ongoing grievances over the 2020 presidential election.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is expected to announce a presidential bid in the coming months, made his state one of the most restrictive in the country for abortion access by signing a bill banning most abortions after six weeks. The day after signing the bill during a private late-night ceremony, he avoided specifically mentioning it during a short speech at the conservative Baptist school Liberty University.
But the move attracted approval from another expected 2024 contender, former Vice President Mike Pence.
“I want to commend Florida and their governor for moving the heartbeat bill,” he said during an interview on Fox News.
Pence’s position on the issue long has been very clear. He told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer last month that “of course” he supports a six-week federal ban. He was the only Republican presidential hopeful to almost immediately comment on the Texas judge’s ruling on the abortion pill, issuing a statement celebrating the decision, when many in the GOP were silent on the matter.
On Monday, Pence also pushed back on the idea that Republicans will pay a political price for passing restrictive abortion laws.
“I really believe if we meet this moment with principle and compassion, and you look at races around the country, men and women that did that did well in 2022, and I believe we can lead on it and win in 2024 if we stand for life,” he told NewsNation.
Ahead of her speech, Haley had been reluctant to identify a detailed abortion policy she would support if elected president, saying in Iowa earlier this month that she didn’t want to “get into that game” of defining at what point in a pregnancy she would support an abortion ban. She also said that states should take the lead on the sensitive topic but didn’t fully discount supporting a federal ban at some point.
Meanwhile, in his announcement of his exploratory committee, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott vowed to “protect our most fundamental right, the right to life itself,” but has recently given multiple different answers when asked about specifics.
In an April 12 interview with CBS, he was evasive about whether he’d support a federal abortion ban. But a day later, he told New Hampshire station WMUR that he’d “definitely” sign a 20-week ban on abortion. And most recently, Scott said he would sign the most restrictive bill that can pass Congress.
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, another 2024 contender, told Fox News that he would sign a 15-week ban if he were elected president, but added that he prefers that the states resolve the issue.
“I’ve always signed pro-life bills and if a pro-life bill comes to me that sets reasonable restrictions but also has the appropriate exemptions, yes I would sign it,” he said. He supports exceptions for life of the mother and in cases of rape and incest.
But some Republicans who identify as “pro-life,” including biotech founder Vivek Ramaswamy, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, have decidedly squashed the idea of a federal abortion ban, saying regulating abortion should be left to the states.
In an interview with CNN over the weekend, Ramaswamy said he was against a federal ban.
“This has always been an issue for the states. Roe v. Wade got it wrong, now we’ve got it right and we have to stand on principle. Now it’s an issue for states,” he said. Later this week, in South Carolina, Ramaswamy will hold what his campaign is calling a “life town hall” at the Carolina Pregnancy Center, which hosted several of the GOP presidential candidates in 2016.
Sununu, who’s weighing a run for president, argued on CNN last week that abortion is “not a presidential issue” and said that the GOP should instead focus on other matters such as inflation, mental health access and border security.
On CNN, Sununu criticized his party for being “awful” with its messaging on abortion and said that when Republicans discuss more restrictive laws, they alienate voters and lose elections.
“I support that a state should be able to design their path, right? We shouldn’t have national abortion bans. I disagree with six weeks vehemently, of course, that’s a horrible position to be. And it’s upsetting a lot of folks, because a lot of Republicans are realizing it’s going to hurt our message and hurt our ability to win states,” he said in interview with CNN’s Erin Burnett last week.
He had signed a 24-week ban on abortion within the state’s 2021 budget that includes exceptions for fatal fetal diagnoses and the life of the mother.
Asked about SBA Pro-Life America’s litmus test, Christie told CNN, “For 50 years, we’ve argued that this isn’t a constitutional right, and it isn’t, that we should let the states decide. … We now have that opportunity because of Dobbs and I think that’s what we should do.”
In her interview with CNN, Dannenfelser said that “unless there is a strong federal role” in limiting abortion, “then we will in the end lose,” arguing that abortion rights activists have mobilized to halt states from passing restrictions.
“There is no Republican candidate that will get the support of the pro-life movement, evangelicals, Catholics and secular people who support the pro-life cause who rejects such a limit (of 15 weeks),” Dannenfelser told CNN.
CNN’s Kit Maher, Eva McKend and Kristen Holmes contributed to this report.