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2024 Republicans are split over the best abortion policy — but united on attacking Democrats

The GOP claim that Democrats support abortion "on demand" until birth is getting new life on the 2024 GOP primary trail.
Mike Pence during a Celebrate Life Day rally outside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington
Mike Pence during a Celebrate Life Day rally outside the Lincoln Memorial, in Washington, on June 24, 2023. Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images file

Republican presidential candidates have been hard to pin down on just how they’d set federal policy on abortion, dancing around questions or throwing out different answers at different times. 

But they all agree on one thing: accusing Democrats of wanting legal abortion, “on demand,” up until the moment of birth.

It’s a claim a number of Republicans leaned on in the 2022 midterms as they tried to combat intense backlash against their party after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overturned Roe v. Wade last year. Some voices in the GOP say they’re at a disadvantage on abortion because they haven’t pushed the message hard enough. 

And the claim is getting new life on the 2024 campaign trail as Republican primary contenders seek to frame Democrats as “extreme” on abortion, even after Democrats successfully parried such attacks on their way to a surprisingly strong showing last year.

“They support abortion on demand with taxpayer dollars all the way up to the moment of birth,” former Vice President Mike Pence said at a town hall in Meredith, New Hampshire, last Thursday. 

Pence has tried to use his anti-abortion rights stance to distinguish himself on the campaign trail, criticizing other candidates for not committing to support federal legislation.

While he told CNN in March that he would support a six-week federal ban, which would be the strictest federal proposal among the candidates, Pence has lately been calling for a 15-week federal ban while supporting stricter bans on the state level.

Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina reiterated the claim at a town hall in Manchester, New Hampshire, the day after Pence spoke, accusing the left of pushing for legal abortion “up until the day of birth.”

Scott has shifted his emphasis when he has talked about abortion in recent months — he praised a six-week abortion ban signed into law in South Carolina in May (and since held up in court) as “good news,” but he has since publicly backed only a 15-week national ban. He has also said he would sign the most conservative abortion legislation that came to his desk as president.

“I believe a 15-week limit is where the federal government should stop the radical left from pushing abortion,” Scott said Friday.

Former President Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley have all weighed in with similar lines as they try to claw back a political advantage on the issue of abortion. The latest NBC News poll showed 61% of voters disapproving of the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe, compared with 36% who approved.

The background for the claim comes from failed federal legislation as well as state laws. The Scott campaign pointed NBC News to H.R. 3755, known as the Women’s Health Protection Act, when it was asked to provide evidence of Democrats’ attempting to push abortion “up until the day of birth.”

The legislation was Democrats’ main effort to enact federal abortion protections into law last year. The bill crashed in the Senate after it twice failed to achieve the 60 votes needed to overcome the filibuster, with every Republican senator opposing the bill along with Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

The Women’s Health Protection Act called for abortion protection until fetal viability, which is typically defined as around 24 weeks of pregnancy — approaching the end of the second trimester. It also called for abortion access after fetal viability, when “in the good-faith medical judgment of the treating health care provider, continuation of the pregnancy would pose a risk to the pregnant patient’s life or health.”

The Pence campaign also pointed to states like Washington, Nevada and Virginia — all of which allow abortion after viability (or, in Virginia, after the second trimester) only if the health of the woman is in danger. While Washington’s and Nevada’s laws don’t define “health” further, Virginia’s law requires a physician and two consulting physicians to enter into hospital records that continuing a pregnancy would “substantially and irremediably impair the mental or physical health of the woman.”

Six states and Washington, D.C., allow abortion without any term restrictions: Alaska, Oregon, Colorado, New Mexico, Vermont and New Jersey, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which supports abortion rights. 

Alaska is the only state with both a Republican governor and a majority-Republican legislature that has no term restriction on abortion, showing the issue isn’t always divided along party lines. 

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2020, before the Dobbs decision, show that 93% of abortions in the U.S. occurred during the first trimester of pregnancy, 6% occurred from 14 to 20 weeks, and 1% occurred at 21 weeks or later. 

Speaking on CNN over the weekend, Pence recognized the need for abortion in certain “tragic” circumstances, including instances involving rape or incest or when a woman’s life is in danger. But he added, “In cases where it is simply the subjective judgment of a physician or a percentage potential, I always want to err on the side of life.”

The Democratic National Committee slammed Republicans for their claims.

“Republicans will say anything to distract from their own extremism,” DNC spokesperson Ammar Moussa said.