“After I gave my life to Jesus Christ as my lord and savior I opened up the book and I read ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you. And see I set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life,’” Mike Pence intoned from the debate stage Wednesday. “I knew from that moment on the cause of life had to be my cause.”
Pence then took a whack at Nikki Haley, quipping that consensus is not leadership, and went on to tout his support for a federal ban on abortions starting 15 weeks after conception — quickly adding that there is 70 percent consensus behind such a ban (more on this below).
This moment, in the context of Pence’s career and the anti-abortion movement, is staggering.
Evangelical Mike Pence is and always has been a stalwart member of the Christian Right. That has been manifest in a career in which, as governor of Indiana, he signed every abortion restriction that crossed his desk, targeted LGBTQ people and enforced retrograde gender roles by going so far as to refuse to be alone in rooms with any women but his wife.
Now, he’s trying to set himself apart from the pack of Republican candidates by being the anti-abortion crusader, the one with no interest in moderating despite his party’s electoral tailspin since Dobbs, because it’s just that important. And yet he’s running behind a 15-week federal ban?
Anti-abortion activists, whether in office or out of it, assert that life begins at conception and that all abortion, no matter how early in the pregnancy, is murder. That’s the position that undergirds the idea of fetal personhood enshrined in law — the anti-abortion white whale that would consider embryos and fetuses people, endowed with rights under the 14th Amendment. The concept has already seeped into the Supreme Court, and peppers Justice Samuel Alito’s decision in Dobbs.
Pence supports fetal personhood.
Within that framing, a 15-week ban, surely, falls well short of the protections needed for his “life’s cause.”
It must be noted: Pence, in his wind-up to his 15-week platform during the debate, is actually doing some creative copy/pasting to craft a Bible verse that sounds very anti-abortion. “Before I formed you in the womb” is from Jeremiah and is the precursor to God telling Jeremiah, varying slightly in different translations, “I appointed you as prophet to the nations.” The life and death bit comes from Deuteronomy, and is encouraging the reader to turn towards God and be rewarded and blessed.
Also, the “70 percent” figure he cites is not true; an AP poll from June finds that “about half” of U.S. adults think abortion should be legal at 15 weeks, a number that is likely buoyed by anti-abortion disinformation that 15 weeks constitutes a “late term” abortion.
That aside: This episode reveals the extent of the Republican Party’s floundering, its flailing to find a position on abortion that doesn’t alienate the anti-abortion activists — a numerically small but immensely powerful section of its base — while also not juicing up the majority of Americans who support abortion access.
As the Fox News hosts pointed out Wednesday night, the party has been spectacularly unsuccessful in this endeavor so far, losing on abortion-related referenda from Kansas to Kentucky to Ohio.
Fifteen weeks, then, seems to be an attempt at compromise. Pence, the stand-in for the other hard core anti-abortion activists, is trying to demonstrate that even he, who has devoted himself to “life,” can make this allowance.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), in a flummoxing political move at the time as Republicans were sprinting away from the issue, proposed a 15-week federal ban in September 2022. It has since become the rallying point for most in the movement working towards a nationwide gestational ban.
In a sign of how upended the anti-abortion movement has been by Dobbs and the electoral politics around it, major anti-abortion organization Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America applauded Pence for embracing this benchmark.
“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,” the organization cheered Wednesday night. (Despite this ubiquitous anti-abortion myth, fetuses have not developed the necessary structures to feel pain until at least 24-25 weeks.)
Other Republicans struggled too. Nikki Haley fell back on the rather weak stance that the Senate doesn’t have 60 votes for an abortion ban and hasn’t for years, so what does it really matter what she would sign? DeSantis tried to have it both ways, touting the six-week ban he signed as Governor of Florida (in the dead of night, with little fanfare) but advocating leaving it to the states.
But the others, as anti-abortion as they may be, still don’t represent the tip of the movement’s spear like Pence does. This is the man who, just a year ago, in prepared remarks, said that “our goal should be not just to make abortion illegal, but totally unthinkable for every American citizen,” that “we believe that life begins at conception.”
Dobbs revolutionized our politics, in ways we’re still reckoning with and struggling to predict. Nowhere is that more evident than in the “moderation” of Mike Pence, the anti-abortion crusader in search of a consensus to follow.