Florida’s GOP presidential candidates have different visions on abortion

By: - June 23, 2023 1:01 pm

Latin American obstetrician doing an ultrasound on a pregnant woman at the hospital – healthcare and medicine

Saturday marks the one-year anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Dobbs v Women’s Health Organization decision ending a federal right to an abortion.

Since then, 13 states have passed laws banning abortion outright, according to the Guttmacher Institute, and others like Florida have enacted their first restrictions on abortion in decades.

In the Sunshine’s State’s case, a 15-week ban was passed with no exceptions for rape or incest and signed into law months before Roe was overturned (and its constitutionality is being challenged at this very moment in the Florida Supreme Court).

There followed a more restrictive six-week ban that passed during the 2023 legislative session, although that bill does include exemptions for rape and incest.

With the issue likely to remain front and center through the fall of 2024, we decided to examine the three Florida men running for the Republican nomination for president and where stand on the sensitive subject.

The newest candidate on the block, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, backs a ban on women having an abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy, asserting that’s where the majority of the country is at right now.

“We are in a situation where 70% of the country agrees with a limitation of 15 weeks where there is an exception for the life of the mother and an exception for rape and incest, and I think that is a position that will save a tremendous amount of babies,” Suarez told the Associated Press. “If there was that kind of federal law, that’s one that I would support as president.”

A federal 15-week abortion ban is being pushed by South Carolina Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, but the idea runs counter to the mantra from abortion opponents since Dobbs that the issue simply had gone back to the states. However, influential pro-life organizations appear now to be demanding that presidential candidates back a federal ban on abortion, as well.

DeSantis all-in on six weeks

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis seemed tentative on the campaign trail last year about whether Florida should restrict abortion rights beyond the 15-week ban, as illustrated during his one debate with Democrat Charlie Crist last fall. He didn’t say much about it during this year’s legislative session, either. But now that he’s working to win the GOP presidential nomination, DeSantis has full-on embraced the six-week ban he signed in a late-night ceremony in April and is now attacking Donald Trump for being wishy-washy on the issue.

That’s because Trump, who has boasted about appointing three Supreme Court justices who provided the votes for the overturn of Roe, was critical of DeSantis for signing the six-week bill in an interview last month with the Messenger. “If you look at what DeSantis did, a lot of people don’t even know if he knew what he was doing. But he signed six weeks, and many people within the pro-life movement feel that was too harsh.”

While Trump is correct that polls show that that a majority of the general public feel the six-week ban goes too far, the data don’t support his assertion that sentiment shared “within the pro-life movement.” DeSantis pounced the very next day.

“Protecting an unborn child when there’s a detectable heartbeat is something almost, probably 99% of pro-lifers support,” the governor said following a bill signing ceremony in Fort Lauderdale on May 16.

“It’s something that other states like Iowa under Gov. Kim Reynolds have enacted and I think that as a Florida resident he didn’t give an answer about would you have signed the heartbeat bill that Florida did. That had all the exceptions that people talked about, the Legislature put it in. I signed the bill. I was proud to do it. He won’t answer whether he would sign it or not.”

While DeSantis’ embrace of the six-week ban has delighted many social conservatives, anti-abortion advocates in Florida believe he could go further.

“Tragically, the Heartbeat Law, which Gov. DeSantis hurriedly signed late at night last April, remains severely deficient in the new Dobbs era, because tens of thousands of preborn children will still be annually killed in Florida abortions due to the many exceptions in the law as well as the fact that the law denies all legal protection to preborn children under six-weeks’ gestation,” says Andrew Shirvell, executive director of Florida Voice for the Unborn.

“Moreover, the Heartbeat Law has yet to go into effect — and Florida’s abortion numbers for 2023 are sky-high.  In fact, per the Agency for Health Care Administration’s latest available data for 2023, Florida is on pace for over 99,000 abortions by the end of the year.”

The latest numbers on the agency’s website show 3,3010 abortions in Florida this far this year. Last year, the number was 82,581.

Pro-choice then not

Trump’s refusal for the moment to say whether he supports a six-week ban is emblematic of his often divergent takes on the one of the country’s most divisive issues.

Long before he formally entered the race for president eight years ago, Trump was known for being pro-choice, going back to a 1999 interview on NBC’s Meet The Press with the late Tim Russert.

“I’m very pro-choice,” he said at the time. “I hate the concept of abortion. I hate it. I hate everything it stands for. I cringe … .

“But still, I just believe in choice. And again, it might be more of a New York background because there is some different attitude in different parts of the country, and you know, I was raised in New York and grew up and worked and everything else in New York City, but I am strongly for choice, and yet I hate the concept of abortion.”

Flash forward to his run for the GOP nomination for president in 2016, when Trump made an appearance on Chris Matthews Hardball program. Trump seemed content to tell Matthews that he was “pro-life” with exceptions, but Matthews then pressed him on what sanctions he would impose for those who violated the law.

“This is not something that you can dodge,” the former MSNBC host asked. “If you say abortion is a crime, or abortion is murder, you have to deal with it under the law. Should abortion be punished?”

Trump responded initially simply by saying that “it’s a very serious problem that we have to decide on” before ultimately landing on “there has to be some form of punishment.”

“For the woman?” Matthews asked.

“Yeah, there has to be some form,” Trump said, but couldn’t answer what the punishment should be.

Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America is considered one of the most influential anti-abortion groups in Washington, D.C. A spokesperson told the Phoenix that it’s backing a federal abortion ban after 15 weeks  — which is Suarez’ position.

“Multiple polls — MaristHarvard-HarrisAP-NORCNPR — show at least two-thirds of Americans support limiting abortion after the first trimester and science has proven that babies feel pain by 15 weeks,” said Kelsey Pritchard, director of state public affairs for the organization. (That conclusion is not univerally embraced.)

“In order to win, Republicans must be clear about their position on protections for the unborn and contrast it with the extremism of Democrats’ agenda for abortion up until birth, paid for by the taxpayer, and no parental consent,” Prichard said.

Accusations that Democrats support abortion up until birth frequently are invoked by Republicans, such as Marco Rubio against Val Demings in last year’s U.S. Senate race in Florida. Demings responded by saying that she supported abortion “up to the time of viability of the fetus,” which has generally been considered at 24 weeks.

Federal legislation

Congressional Democrats proposed legislation last year that would allow abortion after fetal viability when — and only when — doctors believe continuing the pregnancy would pose a risk to the pregnant patient’s life.

Regarding taxpayer funded abortions, the Hyde Amendment bans federal funding for most abortions. A group of House Democrats did reintroduce legislation earlier this year that would reverse that law.

Students for Life of America, another anti-abortion group, strongly supports federal action on abortion, as well.

“Mike Pence is the only one (other than Suarez) that’s come out to say that he’s willing to do something on the federal level. I think that’s our next biggest challenge where a lot of candidates have been saying that it should be handled at the states, and I think that a presidential candidate should also have a federal policy in place,” said Dana Stancavige, an online editor the organization.

“The vote of the pro-life generation will need to be earned, and we are asking all presidential candidates to tell us their federal plans, as abortion is federal, state, local, and local,” says Kristi Hamrick, VP of media & policy for Students for Life Action in an email.

Stancavige said her organization strongly supports DeSantis’ six-week ban, saying, “Students for Life Action is really advocating for the earliest protections possible.”

During this year’s State of the Union address in February, President Joe Biden said that if Congress passed a federal abortion ban, he’d veto it. He also said that that Congress “must restore the right the Supreme Court took away last year and codify Roe v. Wade” but, with a divided congress now and likely following the 2024 elections, that scenario doesn’t seem remotely possible.

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Mitch Perry
Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry has covered politics and government in Florida for more than two decades. Most recently he is the former politics reporter for Bay News 9. He has also worked at Florida Politics, Creative Loafing and WMNF Radio in Tampa. He was also part of the original staff when the Florida Phoenix was created in 2018.