Given the nonstop outcry from Republicans against Planned Parenthood over the deceptively edited videos from the Center for Medical Progress (CMP), it’s no surprise that abortion rights would be a prominent issue at the first major GOP presidential candidate debate—both the main event with the top ten polling candidates, and the earlier undercard debate with the remaining seven.
It’s also no surprise, given the anti-choice rhetoric of late, that the substance of the debate would actually be less about Planned Parenthood and more about whether abortion should be legal in the United States.
Fox News host and moderator Megyn Kelly directed the first question about abortion at Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who has signed 12 anti-choice bills, including an unconstitutional 20-week abortion ban that has no exceptions for rape or incest.
Kelly pushed Walker on his opposition to any exceptions for abortion bans, including life endangerment: “Would you really let a mother die rather than have an abortion, and with 83 percent of the American public in favor of a life exception, are you too out of the mainstream on this issue to win the general election?”
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Walker’s response suggested that no, he doesn’t support a life endangerment exception, and that this position is somehow “in line with everyday America.”
“I believe that that is an unborn child that’s in need of protection out there, and I’ve said many a time that that unborn child can be protected, and there are many other alternatives that can also protect the life of that mother. That’s been consistently proven,” Walker said.
He didn’t specify which “alternatives” to abortion could protect the life of a woman with a potentially fatal pregnancy.
Kelly pushed Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) from the opposite ideological side, asking why he has supported rape and incest exceptions: “If you believe that life begins at conception, as you say you do, how do you justify ending a life just because it begins violently, through no fault of the baby?”
Rubio replied that he has “never advocated” for rape and incest exceptions. That’s true in the sense that he hasn’t been vocal in pushing for them. But he has supported legislation that contains such exceptions, such as the national 20-week abortion ban that imploded when some legislators worried the rape exception was too onerous for victims.
The vast majority of Americans support exceptions for rape, incest, or life endangerment, but the anti-choice base typically doesn’t. Some anti-choice advocates celebrate as heroes women who die in pregnancy or who carry a rape-induced pregnancy to term.
Kelly also asked Donald Trump about his past “very pro-choice” views, to which Trump replied that he hates “the concept of abortion” in part because his friends who considered abortion had a child who turned out to be a “total superstar.”
Mike Huckabee, who recently said he wouldn’t rule out using federal troops to stop abortion, made a comment about how “the DNA schedule that we now have clear scientific evidence on” proves personhood begins at conception.
Huckabee also advocated for doing something “even more bold” than defunding Planned Parenthood by having the next president outlaw abortion under the Fifth and 14th Amendments to the Constitution.
“The Supreme Court is not the supreme being,” Huckabee said in an apparent legal justification for why the executive branch could overrule Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion prior to when a fetus is considered viable, usually around 24 weeks.
There was some specific talk about defunding Planned Parenthood, which conservatives falsely claim uses public funds for abortion services, but less than might have been expected.
Walker boasted about defunding Planned Parenthood in Wisconsin four years ago, before the dishonest CMP attack videos gave Republicans cover to do so.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), one of the Senate’s most vocal anti-Planned Parenthood gadflies along with Ted Cruz (R-TX), was silent on the issue, while Cruz reiterated his calls to defund Planned Parenthood and have the Department of Justice (DOJ) investigate it.
Jeb Bush said he created a “culture of life” in Florida by defunding Planned Parenthood, funding anti-choice crisis pregnancy centers, and pioneering the “Choose Life” license plate. He even referenced his controversial interference in Terry Schiavo’s end-of-life care.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who made some of the evening’s most moderate comments including one about same-sex marriage, didn’t address abortion or Planned Parenthood on the stage. But he has signed 16 anti-choice measures in Ohio and played an active role in closing half of the state’s abortion clinics.
Oddly, there was more anti-Planned Parenthood red meat to be found in the earlier debate with the lower-polling candidates.
“These Planned Parenthood tapes, what they’re showing are partial-birth abortions,” former Sen. Rick Santorum said of videos that showed no abortion procedures and no proof of any illegal activity.
Santorum echoed Huckabee’s distaste for the Supreme Court, comparing the recent ruling in favor of gay marriage to the pro-slavery Dred Scott ruling because both were “rogue” decisions. Anti-choice advocates often compare Dred Scott to Roe v. Wade.
George Pataki, the only self-identified pro-choice GOP candidate, still came out in favor of unconstitutional 20-week abortion bans that contradict Roe v. Wade and wrongly called 20-week fetuses “viable.”
Pataki called for making permanent the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funds being used for abortion care except in rare circumstances, and for defunding Planned Parenthood. He called the misleading CMP videos “horrific” and said they showed “a hideous disrespect for life.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) suggested that Americans should “take the money that we would give to Planned Parenthood and put it in women’s health care without having to harvest the organs of the unborn.” That public funding provided to the national health-care organization is used to provide low-income women with reproductive health-care services, including contraception, Pap smears, and breast exams.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal bragged about kicking Planned Parenthood out of Medicaid in his state, even though he admitted that they “don’t provide any abortions in Louisiana.” He called for having the IRS investigate Planned Parenthood as well as the DOJ.
Carly Fiorina, widely considered the breakout star of the second-tier GOP debate, only mentioned abortion issues in passing despite her staunch anti-choice views—once to question the sincerity of Trump’s principles, and once to take a jab at Hillary Clinton for defending Planned Parenthood.