What do Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis think about federal abortion policy?
An obvious question that nobody seems interested in
Donald Trump is a prominent politician in the United States of America. So is Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida. Gamblers on PredictIt believe the odds that one of those two men will be the next Republican Party presidential nominee are over 60 percent.
And this is a situation where gamblers are more agnostic than the media — in terms of press coverage, the 2024 GOP primary is a two-person race.
There’s been ample speculation about both of these guys and their plans. Liberals have written plenty of columns explaining that as bad as Donald Trump is, DeSantis is also really bad, while conservatives write columns complaining that liberals who said Trump was awful now want to say that DeSantis is also awful.
And neither of these guys really has a reputation as a policy nerd. Their personas are cultural warriors, avatars of certain kinds of attitudes and dispositions. So while I’m disappointed that the national press corps has done absolutely nothing to help us understand what two top presidential contenders think about taxes, health care policy, Social Security, or any other policy issue, I do sort of understand.
But then, there’s abortion.
Abortion has been in the news a lot lately. As you have probably heard, the Supreme Court recently issued a widely discussed decision overturning Roe v. Wade. And there was an also-widely-discussed referendum in Kansas won by the pro-choice side.
Abortion is a quintessential culture war issue. It’s not totally without technical nuance, but broadly speaking, some people want to ban abortion in all cases with no exceptions. Some favor narrow exceptions for rape or to save the life of the mother. Others favor a broader health exemption to allow for therapeutic abortion. Most voters seem to favor legal abortion for the first trimester (when the vast majority of abortions take place) and pretty strict restrictions after that. This is the kind of thing that’s relatively easy to discuss in plain language and doesn’t require a lot of math or technical models.
So it’s really weird that I have absolutely no idea what either Trump or DeSantis thinks about federal abortion policy.
The dog that caught the car
To some extent, this reflects the fact that the Republican Party had a bit of a “dog that caught the car” moment once the Dobbs opinion was handed down.
I don’t really follow the logic of anti-abortion theology, but one of its core tenets is that a fertilized embryo has rights that override any considerations of social consequences and of a pregnant woman’s bodily autonomy.1 This means that sentimental ideas like “you shouldn’t have to carry your rapist’s child to term” or “you shouldn’t have to continue a pregnancy that carries major risks to your health” are out. This is a view that very few Americans — but all of the intellectual leaders of the anti-abortion movement — adhere to.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops says “abortion (that is, the directly intended termination of pregnancy before viability or the directly intended destruction of a viable fetus) is never permitted.”
The evangelical Family Research Council once put out a 50-page booklet explaining why rape victims should have to carry their pregnancy to term. And the people who believe this are under no illusion about the politics of the situation. Indeed, the FRC pamphlet opens with the observation that the position the pamphlet is arguing for is toxically unpopular:
According to the 1996 Gallup Poll of public opinion, 77 percent of Americans think abortion should be legal for a pregnancy caused by rape or incest. In a 1991 study released by Americans United for Life and conducted by the Gallup Organization, respondents were asked whether they thought an abortion would be acceptable during the first three months of pregnancy if the woman had been raped. Ninety-six point two percent said that they “seldom disapproved” of a woman having an abortion in such a case. In cases where the woman was the victim of incest, 97.1 percent seldom disapproved. In a 1996 study for which researchers at the State University of New York surveyed 89 male and 215 female college students, 92 percent of students took a pro-abortion stance for girls under 18 in cases of rape. In cases of incest or when the girl’s health is in danger, 90 percent of students had a pro-abortion stance. An overwhelm- ing majority of Americans accept abortion for the “hard cases” of rape and incest.
Most conservatives I know think that it’s dirty pool for liberals to run around talking about rape victims because, in practice, rape victims constitute a very small share of abortions. By the same token, it would be trivially easy for Republicans to address that concern by allowing the exception. They don’t because the leading lights of the anti-abortion movement believe this is an important matter of principle.
But most Republicans also don’t want to lose elections by coming out and saying that they adhere to the FRC/USCCB position on this. Yes, every once in a while a state legislator will pop off about how pregnant women should be forced to carry non-viable fetuses to term. But in general, that’s considered amateur hour stuff, and savvy politicians don’t do it. They just also don’t come out and say, “okay, here are some situations in which I think abortion should be legal.”
But that’s why it’s a little curious to me that very prominent and frequently discussed people like Trump and DeSantis haven’t been asked to clarify their views on federal abortion policy.
Now that Dobbs is the law of the land, what should the United States Congress do about abortion?
A big party asymmetry
To an extent, I’m annoyed that none of the journalists who cover these guys have bothered to ask some pretty basic questions.
But more broadly, I think our ignorance on this point highlights an important asymmetry between the party conditions. I just don’t think you could run for president as a Democrat without articulating a public position on any issues that have dedicated advocacy groups. Planned Parenthood and NARAL ask candidates for office to publicly support the Women’s Health Protection Act, and they’d be very mad at someone who didn’t. And that’s not unique to abortion. Across a whole range of issues, advocacy groups have policy asks, and on the Democratic side, those asks tend to take the form of demands for public pledges of fealty.
Republicans are not generally like this.
I think it was understood during the 2020 primary that any Republican Party president would ease regulation of air and water pollution relative to the Obama administration’s policies. But industry groups never asked the candidates to publicly outline a specific agenda for increasing pollution. And the candidates didn’t get on stage at the debates and try to one-up each other with different specific agendas for allowing more air pollution. Marco Rubio said Trump had a small penis, and Trump dunked on Jeb Bush’s brother, but the test of one’s true commitment to conservatism was never a willingness to explicitly swear allegiance to unpopular and politically unrealistic activist demands.
The progressive side does things very differently, and we spent a lot of the 2020 primary engaging in a pointless debate over which candidates would and wouldn’t enact a ban on private health insurance.
It’s to the right’s credit that they don’t go that far overboard on this kind of thing. But the opposite extreme — no debate at all over the anti-abortion party’s abortion policy goals and platforms — is very odd. And I’m not sure how tenable it is.
Predictions are hard, especially about the future
People love to BS about who’s likely to win the 2024 GOP nomination, will Biden run again, is DeSantis really a stronger candidate than Trump, etc.
And I think it’s good to try to make rigorous predictions and record them and look back on your track record. But I tell people just interested in parlor game speculation that I think there is more uncertainty hovering around 2024 than is generally acknowledged, precisely because of the lack of policy analysis that we’ve seen so far. The current equilibrium where neither Trump nor DeSantis is trying to outbid the other by taking clear, explicit positions on federal abortion policy is good for both of them and good for the Republican Party as a whole. But it seems reasonably likely that one or the other will seek advantage by defecting from the “don’t talk about specifics” deal, and at least plausible that if neither of them do, some third person will elbow their way onto the big stage by talking about it.
After all, beyond the obvious “would you support a federal abortion ban, and if so, would that ban contain any exceptions?” there are plenty of urgent questions around FDA regulation of mifepristone, interstate abortion travel, companies that guarantee payment for extra services that employees in abortion ban states may need, and, of course, whether Republicans should try to do anything to support pregnant women and young families financially.
Greg Abbott, after all, is out there serving as governor of the second-largest state in the union and seemingly doing a good deal more than DeSantis to put anti-abortion thought into practice. It’s not a huge surprise that a state that’s a couple of clicks to the right of Florida would be more aggressive with its conservative policymaking. But it gives Abbott an easy way into the presidential conversation if he wants one.
On some topics, GOP primary voters and interest groups seem genuinely comfortable letting candidates stay silent. Nobody needs to make pro-pollution pledges or swear fealty to the cause of minimizing taxes on the rich because the conservative movement has effective internal channels of communication, and even the most moderate Republicans — even Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski and Mitt Romney — are solidly pro-business. But does that logic really apply to an issue like abortion? There are a couple of pro-choice GOP senators, there’s a history of Republican Party presidents “accidentally” appointing pro-choice Supreme Court justices, and obviously Trump does not appear to be a sincerely religious person who is genuinely motivated by a concern for traditional family values. It strikes me as moderately unlikely that detente can hold here. But I could be wrong — I’ve found the incuriosity about this so far from the national media and conservative activists to be puzzling, and maybe everyone will just keep not caring.
But personally, I would like to know! It’s a very important and highly salient issue, and I’m curious what major politicians think about it.
I’m always tempted to say they believe an embryo has the full moral status of a person, but they don’t believe that — they don’t say that women who seek abortions should be prosecuted for murder or that people should mourn miscarriages the way they would the death of a child. But they do believe it’s wrong to subject abortion rights to a utilitarian calculus or to let a woman’s interests trump those of an embryo. I find it odd, but religious people believe lots of odd things.