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Fact-checking the GOP Presidential Candidates on Abortion

Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Eight Republican presidential candidates duked it out on Wednesday night during the first debate of the 2024 election cycle, and their claims on abortion were wildly out of touch with reality. (Donald Trump, the field’s current front-runner who has bragged that he “was able to kill Roe,” was absent from the stage.) Following the overturn of Roe v. Wade, Republicans have struggled to convince voters to back their push to further restrict abortion. That led the candidates to make inflammatory and easily disprovable claims in an attempt to sound like reasonable folks seeking “consensus” on the issue, rather than extremists willing to let pregnant people go septic and force child-rape victims to give birth. Fox News hosts Martha MacCallum and Bret Baier, who moderated the debate, get points for acknowledging the GOP’s losing position on the issue, but they did not even attempt to fact-check the candidates’ outlandish remarks — so we’re doing it for them.

Claim: No Republican president can ban abortions.

Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, the sole woman on the stage, attempted to position herself as the voice of reason. She said that a federal abortion ban could only be enacted with 60 votes in the U.S. Senate and a majority of votes in the U.S. House, neither of which Republicans currently have. After former vice-president Mike Pence pushed back on her position, Haley insisted that “no Republican president can ban abortions any more than a Democrat president could ban all those state laws.”

What Haley’s answer glosses over is that while Republicans don’t hold 60 Senate votes at the moment, the majority leader could move to nuke the filibuster at any time. Such a move would then allow for legislation — say, a 15-week national abortion ban — to pass with a simple majority vote. The president also has more power to restrict (or expand) abortion access than Haley suggested. The president has wide latitude to use executive action or direct the FDA: Earlier this year, for example, the Biden administration implemented an FDA rule that allowed for brick-and-mortar pharmacies and mail-order companies to distribute abortion pills.

A Republican president could also choose to invoke the Comstock Act, which is currently at the center of the legal challenge attempting to overturn the FDA’s approval of mifepristone, one of the two pills used in medication abortions. Anti-abortion advocates have argued that the Comstock Act — an 1873 anti-obscenity law that banned contraception well before women even had the right to vote — could not only be used to ban abortion pills but all sorts of medical instruments and supplies used to terminate pregnancies as well. Other advocates have made the case for the president signing an executive order that would grant personhood to fetuses under the 14th Amendment.

Claim: Blue states allow abortion right up until the moment of birth.

Senator Tim Scott complained that New York, California, and Illinois allow “abortion on demand up until birth.” He’s wrong about this on multiple levels. Those three states allow for a pregnancy to be terminated only until viability, which health-care providers believe to be around 23 or 24 weeks of gestation. Abortion being legal up to a certain point also doesn’t guarantee access to it. There are eight states that don’t have any gestational limits, and even in those states, no clinic offers abortions all the way up to until 40 weeks (the widest window is in Maryland, where people can get an abortion up to 36 weeks).

Such later-in-pregnancy abortions are incredibly rare. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that about one percent of abortions take place after 20 weeks. These cases often involve heartbreaking circumstances, such as a danger to the pregnant person’s life, fatal fetal abnormalities, or late discovery of pregnancy. Doctors have made it exceedingly clear that abortions do not take place in the final days of pregnancy; if a complication arises at that stage, the provider is likely to induce labor.

Anyone who does need an abortion later in pregnancy will also find it prohibitively expensive. Erika Christensen, an advocate who terminated a pregnancy at 32 weeks due to fatal fetal abnormalities, has said she paid $25,000 cash for a four-day procedure in 2016. Insurance reimbursed her just a fraction of that cost.

Claim: Seventy percent of Americans support a 15-week national abortion ban.

Pence, the most vocal anti-abortion ideologue of the bunch, argued that abortions should be banned, at minimum, once a fetus is capable of feeling pain. He implied this takes place at around 15 weeks of pregnancy, saying that 70 percent of Americans support banning abortion at that stage. He is wrong on both counts: According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), fetuses can feel pain at around 27 weeks of gestation.

The statistic Pence offered appears to Frankenstein together several findings from a 2022 survey by the Center for American Political Studies at Harvard University and the Harris Poll, including that 23 percent of respondents thought their state should ban abortion at 15 weeks. Other surveys have found different results. A 2022 Economist/YouGov poll found that only 39 percent of Americans support a 15-week ban, while a 2023 PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll found that 44 percent of respondents believe abortion should be allowed up to 24 weeks.

What has remained constant across surveys, even before Dobbs, is that about seven-in-ten Americans believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

Claim: A fetus that survived a botched abortion was left to die in a pan.

One of the most bizarre moments of the night came thanks to Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who told the following implausible-sounding story: “I know a lady in Florida named Penny. She survived multiple abortion attempts. She was left discarded in a pan. Fortunately, her grandmother saved her and brought her to a different hospital. We’re better than what the Democrats are selling. We are not going to allow abortion all the way up until birth, and we will hold them accountable for their extremism.” (The Cut reached out to the DeSantis campaign for more information about Penny, and we’ll update if it responds.)

According to Jezebel, DeSantis may have been referencing an anti-abortion activist named Miriam “Penny” Hopper who advocates for “Born Alive” legislation. The spokesperson for Protect Life Michigan claims she survived an “induction abortion” in 1955. According to Hopper, her mother experienced complications at 23 weeks of pregnancy from what Hopper presumes was an at-home abortion. Hopper claims her mother then saw a provider who said the fetus had no heartbeat and that the pregnancy needed to be terminated. But in her telling, Hopper was born weighing one pound and left in a bedpan before being rescued by her grandmother and brought to a hospital in Florida. Hopper’s claims are virtually impossible to fact-check and, again, abortions after 20 weeks are uncommon. Botched abortions, especially under similar circumstances to what Hopper claims happened in the 1950s, are also exceptionally rare.

Claim: Democrats support legalizing abortion up to 40 weeks.

Voice-of-reason Haley redirected the conversation away from the GOP’s unpopular stance by challenging the media to ask President Biden and other Democrats whether they support abortion at “38, 39, 40 weeks.” We’ve already established that abortions do not take place at this stage. But the majority of the Democratic Party also has been clear on where they draw the line: the standard established by Roe.

Abortion-rights advocates have been pushing Democrats to reimagine what abortion access could look like, given that the promise of Roe was never a reality for millions of people. For their part, representatives in Congress put forward the Women’s Health Protection Act, a bill that would codify Roe and allow for terminations up to viability, which we’ve established is around 23 or 24 weeks of pregnancy. The notion that Democrats support “abortion on demand” and “up until the moment of birth” is simply false. What no amount of deflection can change is that the anti-abortion policies these Republican candidates — including Haley, who eventually committed to signing a national abortion ban if one were to come across her desk as president — support have caused an extraordinary amount of harm already.

The Cut offers an online tool you can use to search by Zip Code for professional providers, including clinics, hospitals, and independent OB/GYNs, as well as for abortion funds, transportation options, and information for remote resources like receiving the abortion pill by mail. For legal guidance, contact Repro Legal Helpline at 844-868-2812 or the Abortion Defense Network.

Fact-Checking the GOP Presidential Candidates on Abortion