There were a range of positions on abortion displayed during the first Republican presidential primary debate on Wednesday, though all leaned toward more restrictions rather than fewer. It’s an issue that has long been an understandable trigger for political debate, but also one with renewed salience since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
As debate moderator Martha MacCallum noted, a number of recent ballot initiatives centered on abortion have seen the side supporting abortion access be victorious. In response, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley asked her peers to “stop demonizing this issue,” a recognition that a push for a hard-line position on the issue was a political loser for her party.
But she was in the minority, and not just because of her gender. Others onstage called for strict limits on access, at times deploying a favorite bit of hyperbole to do so.
“What the Democrats are trying to do on this issue is wrong, to allow abortion all the way up to the moment of birth,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said. He’s signed a law in his state banning abortion past six weeks of pregnancy.
Sen. Tim Scott, also of South Carolina, said something similar.
“We cannot let states like California, New York and Illinois have abortions on demand up until the day of birth,” Scott warned. “That is immoral. It is unethical. It is wrong.”
The crowd applauded, which was the point. Framing the issue of abortion not as access-vs.-no-access but, instead as for-or-against-murdering-near-newborns provides a much easier point from which to defend restrictions on the practice. The Democrats want to kill kids just before they’re born! Vote Republican.
But this is misleading, if not — as in Scott’s presentation — flatly incorrect.
There are states in which there are no limits on the point of a pregnancy when abortion is available. MacCallum, asking a related question of North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, pointed to New Jersey as an example. Others, according to research from the Guttmacher Institute, include New Mexico, Oregon and Colorado. But that doesn’t mean that a woman can simply walk into a facility at her 40th week and request an abortion. Instead, as PolitiFact wrote when considering this question last year, such procedures “are performed on a case-by-case basis when there are maternal or fetal complications.”
Importantly, even abortions performed after 20 weeks are rare. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) collects data on abortions conducted in the United States, the most recent data for which cover 2020, before the reversal of Roe. That year, less than 1 percent of abortions were performed later than 20 weeks into a pregnancy. Eight in 10 were performed before the 10th week. In New Jersey, less than 2 percent of procedures were conducted after the 20th week.
New York, California and Illinois all have statutory limits on when an abortion can be performed, contrary to Scott’s framing. It is true that an abortion can be performed later than the established limit in New York, but only if the mother’s life is at risk or the fetus isn’t viable. It is not the case that a New Yorker can simply walk into a clinic at any point in a pregnancy and demand an abortion. The number of abortions that are conducted late in pregnancy across the country is very small, though not zero.
The CDC data offers a lens into other aspects of abortion. About 1 in 8 abortions in 2020, for example, was performed on a married mother. Most abortions that year were also the recipient’s first; about 2 in 5 recipients were known to have previously had an abortion.
The most common age range in which abortions were performed that year was when the mother was between 20 and 29. Only 0.2 percent of abortions in 2020 were performed on mothers under the age of 15.
One of the divides that emerged during the Republican debate centered on the point at which abortion should be allowed. Even former vice president Mike Pence, who framed the issue in overtly religious terms, supported a ban after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
That’s the appeal of the “until the moment of birth” rhetoric. Not only does it frame Democrats as demented monsters, it allows Republican candidates to endorse a hard limit on abortion — and therefore sidestep the need to draw a more precise line in the sand.