Bernie Hayes has spent most Mondays since the overturning of Roe v. Wade meeting with friends outside of an Iowa Planned Parenthood trying to stop abortions one at a time. He huddles monthly with other like-minded activists plotting more wholesale paths to halting the procedure.
Lately, Hayes, an elder at Noelridge Park Church in Cedar Rapids, has observed more dissent among anti-abortion allies who once worked in harmony. Some see the fall of Roe as a one-time chance to ban abortion entirely while others are worried about the political consequences of pushing too hard too quickly.
“Sadly, it becomes divisive to the point where we just get fractured,” Hayes said. “I can only imagine what the division looks like on a national scale.”
Those divisions are spilling out into the 2024 Republican presidential primary, as leading anti-abortion organizations are offering candidates conflicting guidance on an issue that has galvanized the political right for half a century. Recent polling shows Republican voters aren’t providing candidates much more clarity.
Lynda Bell, the president of Florida Right to Life, bristled at the suggestion that Republican candidates must back a federal abortion ban.
“There’s nothing in the Constitution that talks about abortion and this issue should be decided by the states,” she said.
But other leaders of anti-abortion groups want GOP candidates to be unflinching in their support for more hardline policies.
“Anyone in the pro-life movement is looking very carefully at the current candidates that are running for president, and those who are not advocating strongly on this issue are going to be the ones that are not going to get the confidence and get the vote of the pro-life movement,” said Maggie DeWitte, the executive director of the Iowa anti-abortion group Pulse Life Advocates.
Candidates are cautiously navigating the unclear expectations of conservative voters as they search for their first presidential nominee in a post-Roe America. Former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the two highest-polling candidates for the GOP nomination, have routinely dodged questions on the trail about whether they would sign a national abortion ban and at how many weeks into a pregnancy they would support such federal legislation.
Meanwhile, candidates who have expressed more defined views on the topic – like former Vice President Mike Pence, a backer of a federal ban, and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who said the federal government “should not be involved” in the abortion debate – have yet to gain traction with Republican voters.
Whoever is the GOP nominee will face an electorate that has so far handed anti-abortion advocates a series of stinging defeats since the Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson last summer. In the immediate aftermath of the court’s ruling, Kansans voted overwhelmingly to keep abortion legal in the state. In November, Michiganders at the ballot box enshrined abortion access in the state constitution. This week in Wisconsin, liberal justice Janet Protasiewicz started her term on the state Supreme Court after winning a spring race, during which she campaigned on protecting abortion access.
The enthusiasm displayed by abortion-rights activists in the past 12 months will be tested again on Tuesday when Ohioans will decide whether to raise the threshold for passing a constitutional amendment, a referendum that would have significant implications for a fall ballot question ensure “every individual has a right to make and carry out one’s reproductive decisions.”
“We need to start winning hearts and minds,” Hayes said. “I don’t think we can worry about a federal ban until you can do that.”
Fight over a new red line
Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, a national anti-abortion group, has clashed with the GOP contenders for the nomination as the organization enforces its own red line for presidential candidates: a 15-week federal ban.
When Trump’s campaign suggested in April that abortion should be decided at the state level, Marjorie Dannenfelser, the organization’s president, called it “a morally indefensible position for a self-proclaimed pro-life presidential candidate to hold.” It was a stunning break between one of the country’s most influential anti-abortion groups and the president who nominated the three Supreme Court justices that helped secure the movement’s watershed victory. Trump and Dannenfelser later met to clear the air, though Trump has still evaded outlining his views on the issue.
Dannenfelser similarly said it was “not acceptable” when another candidate, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, stated “it’s not realistic” to expect a gridlocked Congress to find consensus on federal abortion legislation.
And, in a blistering rebuke this week, Dannenfelser questioned DeSantis’ leadership after he once again declined to back a federal abortion.
“A pro-life president has a duty to protect the lives of all Americans,” she said. “He should be the National Defender of Life.”
DeSantis dismissed the criticism during a campaign stop in New Hampshire, where he noticeably drops references to his state’s new abortion law – which bans most abortions after six weeks – from his stump speech.
“Different groups, you know, are gonna have different agendas, but I can tell you this: Nobody running has actually delivered pro-life protections,” DeSantis said. “I have done that.”
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott seized on the fissure between DeSantis and the leading abortion group, writing in a social media post that, “Republicans should not be retreating on life.” He added, “We need a national 15-week limit to stop blue states from pushing abortion on demand.”
Scott, though, also struggled to define the federal role in the next frontier for the anti-abortion movement after he entered the presidential race in May.
The anti-abortion movement is not totally aligned behind Dannenfelser. Carol Tobias, the president of the National Right to Life Committee, said she thought it was a mistake to have a political litmus test for Republican presidential candidates on abortion and argued doing so would only serve to splinter the party ahead of the general election. It “doesn’t help” for SBA Pro-Life America to set a 15-week national ban as its standard for GOP candidates, Tobias said, arguing that there were more realistic goals to work towards, like ensuring zero tax dollars are used to fund abortions
“If we’re not going to get a national law on abortion through Congress, why focus on it?” Tobias told CNN.
Republicans are divided overall – but not evangelicals
Republican voters appear similarly divided. A New York Times/Siena College national survey released this week found more Republicans favored some exceptions (33%) than a total ban (22%). Meanwhile, one-third said they believed abortion should be mostly or always legal.
But among White evangelical Republican voters – whose influence is especially pronounced in the early nominating contests in Iowa and South Carolina – opposition is higher. More than three-fourths responded that abortion should be always or mostly illegal.
Further complicating the calculus for the Republican field is that the GOP voters least likely to vote for Trump are among the most likely to support at least some protections for abortion. For those Republicans who said they are not open to voting for Trump, only 11% support a total ban while more than half said they want abortion to be legal in most situations.
The clashing opinions underscore the political tightrope Republican candidates are walking after their party underperformed in the 2022 midterms in an election held just months after Roe v. Wade was overturned. Some Republicans – including Trump – have blamed it for the party’s losses, pointing to South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham’s failed attempt to push a federal ban through Congress last year as strategically unsound.
“I thought, ‘What is Lindsey Graham doing?’” Bell said. “The Supreme Court just said it was a state decision. I was baffled.”
But there are also fears within the anti-abortion movement that Republicans won’t act to preserve their chances at the ballot box.
“Some say, ‘Let’s just ignore it,’” Hayes, the Cedar Rapids church elder, said. “For me the worst thing can happen is that it’s either very diluted or taken out of the platform all together. I hope we won’t go there. But if we’re going to talk about it, we need to do it in a smart way.”
In Hayes’ state, Republicans that control Iowa’s government moved to ban most abortions in the state as early as six weeks into pregnancy. Gov. Kim Reynolds signed the measure into law at last month’s Family Leadership Summit, where most of the GOP field had assembled to speak directly to the state’s evangelical and Christian voters. Many Republican candidates heaped praise on Reynolds for signing the law, though most have not advocated for similar legislation at the federal level.
Trump, who has notably not weighed in on Iowa’s law, did not attend the summit and has privately said he considers abortion a losing issue for Republicans. Publicly, he called Florida’s six-week abortion ban “too harsh,” testing conservatives who once celebrated Trump’s place in ending Roe.
“I think many in the pro-life movement were disappointed to hear him talk about life not being a winning issue, and sort of attacking the heartbeat bill and some of the other legislation that’s coming down as being ‘too harsh,’” DeWitte said. “I think that really turned off people in the pro-life movement.”
Joni Lupis, a pastor and president and director of March For Life New York, said she is wary of candidates who aren’t taking a stance on the issue or offering realistic answers.
“Let’s be honest: The president can’t just declare no more abortion in the whole world,” Lupis said. “They can say they will but it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. That’s politics and we’ll have to wait and see what they have to do. I like a person that says what they believe. If you believe something, you should stand behind and declare it.”