Anti-abortion advocates blasted individual candidates including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley for refusing to commit to a national ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy — a pledge taken by some of their competitors on stage.
Vice President Mike Pence, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson called for a federal abortion ban after 15 weeks, a standard that leading anti-abortion groups like Susan B, Anthony Pro-Life America have been pushing for.
"Mike Pence, Tim Scott and Asa Hutchinson each offered a clear, bold case for national protections for the unborn at least by 15 weeks, when they can feel pain, which aligns with the overwhelming consensus of Americans. Additionally, those who offered the clearest contrast pointed out the Democrats' agenda of imposing abortion on demand until birth in every state, nationwide. Going on offense is essential for any candidate who wants to win in 2024," SBA President Marjorie Dannenfelser said in a statement on Thursday.
MORE: 3 things to know about the abortion issue ahead of the GOP primary debate
DeSantis, who has expressed skepticism about the viability of a federal abortion ban, boasted on stage Wednesday about the six-week abortion ban he signed as governor of Florida.
"I believe in a culture of life. I was proud to sign the heartbeat bill. I remember one of the most impactful moments of my life was when I heard the heartbeat of my oldest daughter in my wife's womb," he said.
When pressed by moderator Bret Baier about whether he would sign a federal six-week ban similar to Florida's, DeSantis did not answer.
"I'm going to stand on the side of life," DeSantis said. "I understand Wisconsin will do it different than Texas. I understand Iowa and New Hampshire are going to be different. But I will support the cause of life as governor and as president."
Republican presidential candidates, former Vice President Mike Pence and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis participate in the first debate of the GOP primary season hosted by FOX News at the Fiserv Forum, Aug. 23, 2023 in Milwaukee.Win Mcnamee/Getty Images
SBA said his response "stopped short."
"DeSantis accurately articulated last night that pro-lifers must combat the extremism of Democrats' up-to-birth abortion stance and he accurately pointed out that each state across the country has the ability to set different limits on abortion," the group wrote in a statement to ABC News. "But he stopped short of recognizing that the Dobbs decision sent this issue back to the people through their state and federally elected representatives," the organization added.
SBA also criticized North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, who signed a near-total abortion ban into law in North Dakota, for refusing to commit to implementing similar policies at the federal level if elected.
"[The] presidential debate made it clear who is and is not prepared to be a National Defender of Life. The position taken by candidates like Doug Burgum, that life is solely a matter for the states, is unacceptable for a nation founded on unalienable rights and for a presidential contender," Dannenfelser said.
Haley also attracted criticism from anti-abortion advocates when she rejected the notion of the ban after 15 weeks, noting that it wasn't likely to garner the necessary Senate votes to pass and instead calling for narrower restrictions through "consensus."
Pence, notably one of the the most anti-abortion candidates among the 2024 field, fired back at Haley that "consensus is the opposite of leadership."
"A 15-week ban is an idea whose time has come," Pence said, calling himself "a champion for life."
SBA echoed Pence in bolstering the idea of consensus around a 15-week ban, telling ABC News that "the pro-life movement must have a nominee who will boldly advocate for consensus in Congress and as president will work to gather the votes necessary in Congress. Dismissing this task as unrealistic is not acceptable."
Abortion advocates like Planned Parenthood Action Fund were quick to refute the idea that any of the GOP candidates would back down from the idea of a national abortion ban, as some suggested they would on stage.
"Voters know every GOP candidate would sign a national abortion ban if given the opportunity. Some boasted about their record of rolling back our rights and others hid their true agenda behind bogus buzzwords. Either way, we know their records and the truth," the group said in a post on X after the debate.
NARAL Pro-Choice America said the debate was "one big mess of disinformation, bigotry, and immaturity."
"We'll remember the lies that every single one of the candidates told about abortion, and we'll be ready to vote in favor of reproductive freedom in 2024," the group added on X.
Former Governor from South Carolina and UN ambassador Nikki Haley takes part in the first Republican Presidential primary debate at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on Aug. 23, 2023.Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP via Getty Images
Abortion is an issue that Republicans have struggled with electorally and in their messaging since the Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade and took away the constitutional right to abortion last year.
But Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, said she was pleased to see the subject debated from the stage.
"I was very pleased to see them talk about abortion. … I thought all of them did a really good job on that," McDaniel told Fox News on Thursday morning. "Democrats used that in 2022. … If our candidates aren't able to fend a response and put out a response, we're not going to win. They're going to do it again in 2024."