DES MOINES — Pressed on abortion at a Christian conservative gathering, GOP presidential candidate Nikki Haley said Friday that she would sign a six-week abortion ban in her home state of South Carolina if she were still governor.
Haley has tried to strike a more nuanced tone on abortion than some of her fellow Republican hopefuls by calling for legislators to seek areas of “consensus” at the federal level. She has also said that while she opposes abortion, she “doesn’t judge anyone for being pro-choice.”
At the same time, she has previously said she would support any restriction on the procedure that can pass while sidestepping calls for a particular limit. At a forum on Friday for 2024 candidates hosted by evangelical organization the Family Leader, Haley was asked to be more specific about which types of laws she supports.
The fine line she has tried to walk has drawn approval from some Republicans and independents wary of abortion restrictions — or just eager to move on from the divisive issue. But it’s also brought criticism from both ends of the political spectrum, with some antiabortion activists skeptical of her answers and Democrats attacking Haley as extreme despite her talk of compromise.
“Nikki Haley is no moderate — she’s an anti-abortion MAGA extremist who wants to rip away women’s freedoms just like she did when she was South Carolina governor,” Ammar Moussa, the director of rapid response for President Biden’s reelection campaign, said in a statement.
The former U.N. ambassador has gained steam in the 2024 race in recent months, showing particular momentum in New Hampshire, an early nominating state where many Republicans support abortion access. But she and other candidates also face pressure from the party’s social conservatives to back restrictions — especially in Iowa, the first state in the GOP nominating process.
Haley’s latest comments further muddle the GOP candidates’ differences on abortion. Former president Donald Trump has been harshly critical of six-week bans — even though he worked to overturn Roe v. Wade by remaking the Supreme Court and touts that achievement to conservative voters. Haley has appealed to voters uncomfortable with abortion restrictions, but her latest comments put her to the right of Trump in some respects — and in line with her rival Gov. Ron DeSantis, who faced blowback from some top supporters for signing a six-week ban in Florida.
Trump, the dominant polling leader here in Iowa and in other early states, is scheduled to campaign in the state on Saturday. He has largely avoided multicandidate events, including televised debates.
At Friday’s forum — attended by Haley, DeSantis and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy — Family Leader president Bob Vander Plaats noted that Trump has criticized the six-week bans he helped enable.
“If you were governor of South Carolina and that came to your desk, would you sign a heartbeat bill?” Vander Plaats asked Haley, referring to the point roughly six weeks into a pregnancy when early embryonic heart activity might be detected.
“Yes,” Haley said. “Whatever the people decide.” A six-week ban took effect in South Carolina this summer after the state Supreme Court upheld it.
Earlier this year, asked if she would sign a six-week abortion ban as president, Haley deflected, telling CNN’s Jake Tapper, “I will answer that when you ask Kamala [Harris] and Biden if they would agree to 37 weeks, 38 weeks, 39 weeks. Then I’ll answer your question.”
Vander Plaats on Friday told the candidates assembled for the forum that “it’s only fair to address what I believe is your highest hurdle, from what I’m hearing.” Then he pushed Haley to explain her attention-grabbing answers on abortion during the GOP debates.
“I had some pro-lifers say, that sounded like a pro-choice answer,” Vander Plaats said. “Can you assure them why that’s not a pro-choice answer?”
Haley cited her support for antiabortion measures when she was governor of South Carolina, before the Supreme Court ended a nationwide, constitutional right to abortion. She helped pass a 20-week abortion ban there and supported mandatory waiting periods and ultrasound tests before the procedure.
Then she reiterated her message on consensus from the debates. “I’m trying to bring more people to us to have the conversation of how do we save as many babies as possible and support as many moms as possible,” Haley told the hundreds who turned out for the Family Leader’s forum at the Des Moines Marriott Downtown.
Earlier Friday, she picked up a notable endorsement from an Iowa antiabortion leader. Marlys Popma, former president of Iowa Right to Life, declared at one of Haley’s town halls that she had walked in undecided but was now ready to back Haley.
DeSantis, who will speak at an antiabortion Christmas gala on Saturday, is centering his campaign in Iowa and appealing heavily to evangelical voters such as the ones who turned out for Friday’s forum. He’s rebuked Trump for criticizing six-week bans. But even he often sidesteps questions about national restrictions, suggesting it’s better handled at the state level.
Vander Plaats emphasized on Friday, however, that he hopes to see a Republican president advance national restrictions.
The Thanksgiving forum was designed to get candidates to open up beyond their usual stump speeches, with Vander Plaats gathering three candidates normally at loggerheads around a table for conversation. DeSantis, Haley and Ramaswamy were cordial throughout the nearly two-hour-long chat – even as they touched on policy issues where they are at odds.
They also got personal – often sharing family stories, including on the topic of pregnancy and abortion. Haley reiterated details she often shares about her struggle to get pregnant and her college roommate who was raped. And both DeSantis and Ramaswamy disclosed that their wives had miscarried.
DeSantis brought it up after Vander Plaats asked the candidates how the country could “make family central” and promote households with “a mom and a dad.” Recounting the “blessing” of building his own family, DeSantis said that he and his wife, Casey DeSantis, struggled at first to have a child.
They traveled to Israel when DeSantis was a congressman, visited holy sites and prayed for a baby, he said. “We got back to the United States, and a little time later, we got pregnant,” DeSantis said. “But unfortunately, we lost that first baby, and you know, it was a tough thing, because this is something that we had so much hopes for, so much aspirations … we just kept the faith.”
Ramaswamy recounted his and his wife’s excitement when she first got pregnant.
“We lost our first child,” he said. “And that was the loss of a life.”