GOP presidential candidates are gunning for abortion bans most Americans don't want

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Thursday night's Republican presidential debate often felt more like watching wrestling than a political forum, but the spectacle wasn't just limited to Donald Trump's mean-mugging and the crowd's unnerving applause for his misogynistic comments.

More than just Trump, each of the nine other candidates on stage were given ample opportunity to express their most extreme views. And while the question of defunding Planned Parenthood didn't take up as much air-time as predicted, reproductive health—and abortion, specifically—was on the candidates' minds.


And what was on display wasn't pretty. It was also wildly out of step with where most Americans stand on the issue.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said that he would ban abortion by giving fertilized eggs full rights under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments—due process and equal protection. That would define a person from the moment of conception, effectively outlawing abortion and banning certain forms of birth control. And as reproductive health advocates have warned, personhood would also limit women's constitutional rights, as the application of so-called "fetal harm" laws have already been used to arrest, detain, and incarcerate women for declining cesarean surgery, attempting to self-induce an abortion, or miscarrying.


Personhood, as a legal concept, is so fringe that it has failed almost every time it's been put to a vote. Personhood proposals failed three times in Colorado, including the most recent election in 2014. North Dakota voters also rejected personhood in 2014, and the same thing happened in Mississippi in 2011.

But Huckabee went all-in on the issue on Thursday night. "I think the next president ought to invoke the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution, now that we clearly know that that baby inside the mother's womb is a person at the moment of conception," he said. "This notion that we just continue to ignore the personhood of the individual is a violation of that unborn child's Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. It's time that we recognize the Supreme Court is not the Supreme Being."


Marco Rubio also advocated personhood in a more roundabout way during the debate. In response to a question about his own record on abortion, Rubio said that, like Huckabee, he believed fetuses had constitutional rights. "I believe that every single human being is entitled to the protection of our laws whether they… have their birth certificate or not," he said.

And while Rand Paul was mum on the issue of personhood on Thursday night, he's the sponsor of a federal personhood measure—the Life at Conception Act—which would turn Rubio and Huckabee's talking points into actual law by giving fertilized eggs protection under the Fourteenth Amendment beginning at “the moment of fertilization.”


Paul has tried to downplay his support for personhood during the campaign, even sounding strikingly moderate in a recent interview with the Associated Press. “The thing is about abortion—and about a lot of things—is that I think people get tied up in all these details of, sort of, you’re this or this or that, or you’re hard and fast [on] one thing or the other," he said.

But the Kentucky senator's record on the issue is much more black and white then he lets on. In a recorded statement urging voters to support his personhood proposal, he said his measure would “ban abortion once and for all" by giving fetuses full legal rights.


But look at where public opinion is on the issue of access to abortion, and it's clear that these mainstream Republican candidates are far to the right of most people. According to a 2015 Gallup poll, for the first time in seven years, more Americans identify as "pro-choice" than "pro-life." (The poll found that 50 percent of respondents identified as "pro-choice" whereas 44 percent said they were "pro-life.")

And when you drill down on people's views about access, a total of 80 percent of respondents said they believed abortion should be legal in "all circumstances" or under "certain circumstances." (Twenty-nine percent of respondents said abortion should be legal in "all circumstances" while 51 percent said under "certain circumstances." Just 19 percent said they wanted to see abortion illegal in all circumstances, as it would be if a personhood law took hold.)


The full ban on abortion being campaigned on by Huckabee, Rubio, and Paul would take the medical procedure off the table for the one in three women who will have one in their lifetime. That's not what most Americans want, but that hasn't done much to influence the men who want their vote.

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