Republican debate highlights the candidates’ views on abortion and COVID
Though health policies in general got little airtime, the discussion of whether candidates support a federal abortion ban underscored how Republicans, in a post-Roe environment, face political challenges on the issue.
Eight Republican hopefuls took the stage Wednesday night at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee for the first debate of the 2024 presidential primary campaign.
The eight-way faceoff, generally chaotic and contentious, included Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis; entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy; former Vice President Mike Pence; U.S. Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.); former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie; Trump administration ambassador to the United Nations and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley; North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum; and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson. Fox News anchors Martha MacCallum and Bret Baier often struggled to keep the evening on track. Former President Donald Trump chose not to attend, leading Baier to refer to him as “the elephant not in the room.”
When it came to health care, Haley was the first on the stage to reference it, if only tangentially. About 15 minutes in, she blamed high government spending not just on Washington or Democrats but on her party, too. “The truth is that Biden didn’t do this to us,” she said. “Our Republicans did this to us, too. When they passed that $2.2 trillion COVID stimulus bill, they left us with 90 million people on Medicaid, 42 million people on food stamps.”
Candidates sparred over whether, as the next U.S. president, they would sign a federal abortion ban into law, a discussion that highlighted how the GOP continues to struggle with the abortion question since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Haley maintained that such a ban does not have the necessary support to pass the Senate and make it to the president’s desk, pointing to other abortion-related issues that could offer promising avenues for consensus. Pence, however, pledged if elected to sign such a ban, saying it’s a matter of leadership, not consensus. Also, he said, it is not only a states’ issue but a moral one. DeSantis touted his signature of Florida’s ban on abortions after six weeks, but pivoted from the idea of a federal ban, instead underscoring his opposition to policies that would allow what he described as “abortion all the way up till birth.”
Others on the stage voiced varying opinions about a federal ban, at what point during the gestational period that ban should apply, and even whether the question should be decided by the states.
Ramaswamy, a newcomer to politics, spoke about gun violence and crime in the context of the nation’s mental health crisis. He misspoke, though, when he referred to it as a mental health epidemic rather than a mental illness epidemic.
Here are some health-related claims checked by PolitiFact:
Pence: “A 15-week [abortion] ban is an idea whose time has come. It’s supported by 70% of the American people.”
Survey data on this question varies. Pence’s team pointed PolitiFact to a June poll sponsored by Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, an anti-abortion group, and conducted by the Tarrance Group. It found that 77% of respondents said abortions should be prohibited at conception, after six weeks, or after 15 weeks.
But this poll was sponsored by a group with a position on the issue, and questions were posed in a way that told respondents that fetuses can feel pain at 15 weeks — an assertion that lacks consensus among medical experts.
Independent polls have varied on the question of an abortion ban after 15 weeks. A June 2022 survey from Harvard University’s Center for American Political Studies and The Harris Poll found 23% of respondents said their state should ban abortion after 15 weeks, 12% said it should be banned at six weeks, and 37% said it should be allowed only in cases of rape and incest. Collectively, that’s 72% who supported a ban at 15 weeks or less.
In two subsequent polls, the support for abortion at 15 weeks or less was not as strong. A September Economist/YouGov poll found 39% of respondents supported a national ban on abortion after 15 weeks, and 46% opposed it. And a June Associated Press-NORC poll found that for abortion up to 15 weeks, 51% of respondents said they thought their state should allow it, while 45% thought their state should ban it.
Ron DeSantis: Democrats are “trying … to allow abortion all the way up to the moment of birth.”
This claim is false and misleads about how rarely abortions are performed later in pregnancy. Several other candidates repeated similar claims, saying Democrats such as President Joe Biden are pushing for proposals for “abortion on demand” up to the moment of birth.
The vast majority of abortions in the U.S. — about 91% — occur in the first trimester. About 1% take place after 21 weeks, and far less than 1% occur in the third trimester and typically involve emergencies such as fatal fetal anomalies or life-threatening medical emergencies affecting the mother.
Biden has said he supported Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion and was overturned in June 2022, and wants federally protected abortion access.
Roe didn’t provide unrestricted access to abortion. It legalized abortion federally but also enabled the states to restrict or ban abortions once a fetus is viable, typically around 24 weeks into pregnancy. Exceptions to that time frame typically were allowed when the mother’s life or health was at risk.
The Democratic-led Women’s Health Protection Act of 2021, which failed to pass the Senate, would have effectively codified a right to abortion while allowing for similar post-viability restrictions as those in Roe.
Ron DeSantis: “In Florida, we led the country out of lockdown. We kept our state free and open.”
This is misleading. DeSantis revels in his record of snubbing public health recommendations to curb covid-19’s spread. But he largely omits the closures of schools and businesses that happened under his watch.
Seven states did not issue stay-at-home orders to their residents, but Florida did. On April 1, 2020, DeSantis issued an executive order directing all Florida residents to “limit their movements and personal interactions outside of their home.” The order expired at the end of the month, and Florida began a phased reopening in May.
Though he carved out an exception for religious services and some recreational activities, DeSantis didn’t exempt in-person classroom instruction. His Department of Education issued a March 13, 2020, recommendation that Florida schools close their facilities for an extended spring break and then lengthened the closure through the end of the school year in early June.
Schools reopened in person in August 2020.