Ask six Republican candidates for president whether they think there should be a national ban on abortion, and you’ll get at least seven different answers. In just the past two months, current and prospective candidates have committed at various points to the general idea of a federal bans on abortion (maybe 15 weeks of pregnancy), said it’s a states’ rights issue but they’re looking at “alternatives,” expressed support for six-week bans at the state level while declining to say whether they think a national version would be appropriate, and said they support efforts to get a widely used abortion drug “off the market.”
All of this waffling might suggest that the Republican Party is struggling to find a path forward on abortion after last year’s midterm elections, where abortion rights was a drag on GOP candidates in swing states. But something more complicated is happening. Republicans passed a significant number of first-trimester restrictions at the state level this spring, ranging from full bans to bans on abortion after 12 weeks of pregnancy, none of which are popular with most Americans. And many of the GOP candidates are coalescing around some form of national ban, even if they aren’t on the same page about the specifics.
So the GOP isn’t backing down on its efforts to restrict abortion, even in the face of fairly broad public opposition. The dispute now — in state legislatures and among the presidential candidates — is more about how far to go and how quickly. Presidential candidates are in a tough spot — caught between state legislatures, courts intervening in unexpected ways and unambiguously negative polling numbers on abortion restrictions. That’s particularly true for higher-polling candidates like former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who need to weigh how a gung-ho attitude about abortion restrictions — while probably helpful during the primary — would play in a general election.
Since the beginning of the year, seven states have passed new restrictions on abortion early in pregnancy, including three near-total bans (Utah, North Dakota and Wyoming), two bans on abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy (Florida and South Carolina), and two bans on abortion after 12 weeks of pregnancy (Nebraska and North Carolina). Not all of those bans are currently in effect — some, like Wyoming’s full ban and South Carolina’s six-week ban, were temporarily blocked by the courts, and others won’t become law until a later date — but they showed that GOP lawmakers are serious about continuing to restrict abortion access, even in purplish states like North Carolina and Florida.
The bans in Nebraska and South Carolina followed high-profile failures to pass new abortion restrictions last summer, indicating that in some places, there might actually be more anti-abortion momentum now than there was immediately after Dobbs. The only (very mild) concessions to public opinion were in Tennessee, Idaho and West Virginia, where lawmakers added language to the existing near-total bans either clarifying that ectopic pregnancies were not included, or not subject to reporting requirements.
The 12-week bans were explicitly presented as compromises — a way to outlaw second-trimester abortion without alienating the handful of moderate Republicans who thought a six-week ban went too far. And in South Carolina, the six-week ban that ultimately passed was also an unhappy middle ground for conservative Republicans — who wanted a full ban — and moderate Republicans, who wanted a 12-week ban.
But all of the first-trimester restrictions that passed this year have political risks. Full bans are overwhelmingly unpopular with Americans overall, which is likely why they only passed in highly conservative states. But a FiveThirtyEight analysis of polls conducted between September 2021 and May 2023 found that Americans are ambivalent about 15-week bans and unambiguously oppose six-week bans. According to our analysis, an average of 44 percent of Americans overall were in favor of a 15-week ban during this period, while the same share were opposed. Meanwhile, only 34 percent of Americans supported a six-week ban, and a majority (54 percent) were opposed. There are fewer polls on 12-week bans, but a survey of North Carolina likely voters conducted by Change Research for the left-leaning group Carolina Forward in early May found that less than half of respondents wanted abortion to be illegal at 12 weeks or earlier, while 59 percent wanted to either keep North Carolina’s current restriction on abortion after 20 weeks, or get rid of restrictions on access altogether.
So any early restriction is going to be controversial — and the GOP’s push to tighten abortion laws is generally at odds with public sentiment overall. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that in areas where abortion was prohibited in the aftermath of the Dobbs decision, the share of people who think it should be easier to get an abortion rose from 31 percent in 2019 to 43 percent in 2023. There was a similar uptick in states where abortion was restricted or the law was being disputed in the courts. The poll also found that a majority of Americans (62 percent) think that states are making it too hard to get an abortion, including a substantial minority (39 percent) of Republicans. A majority (53 percent) of Republicans also think it should either be easier (20 percent) or about as difficult as it is now (33 percent) to get an abortion in their area, while less than half (44 percent) think it should be harder. And a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that Americans overall are much more likely to say that the Democratic Party represents their view on abortion (42 percent) compared to the Republican Party (26 percent).
None of this polling points to much of an appetite for more abortion restrictions, even among a solid chunk of Republicans. And it’s especially difficult for presidential candidates to find a position that both pleases anti-abortion advocates and isn’t broadly unpopular. A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted in April found that only 21 percent of Americans support a national ban on abortion without exceptions, and just over one-third (35 percent) are in favor of a national ban at six weeks’ gestation. The idea of banning abortion nationally — even at a later point in pregnancy, like 15 weeks — seems to be fairly politically toxic: A YouGov/Economist poll conducted last fall found that there was more support for establishing a national right to abortion (51 percent) than banning abortion at 15 weeks, while allowing states to enact stricter laws on their own (39 percent).
GOP candidates, however, aren’t running in a general election yet. They’re facing demands from anti-abortion groups to commit to some kind of federal ban — one prominent group threatened to campaign against any candidate who refuses to support a 15-week national ban — and from a significant (and vocal) chunk of their own electorate who also want more restrictions. This is likely one reason why candidates like former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley are floundering for answers, and willing — like DeSantis and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott — to endorse specific state laws while refusing to say (or simply not addressing) whether they’d sign a similar measure at the national level. Imposing abortion restrictions on the entire country is an especially unpopular move at a moment when many Americans don’t think lawmakers should be doing anything to make it harder to get an abortion.
So as the primary continues, Republican candidates may be forced to endorse stances that they agree with in principle but could hurt them later. And so far, none of the candidates seem to have much of a strategy for convincing Americans that enacting more restrictions on abortion is the right approach.