GOP presidential candidates debate abortion among other issues in wake of Ohio referendum

4 mins read
Former biotech executive Vivek Ramaswamy speaks during the third Republican presidential debate at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami Nov. 8, 2023. Also pictured are former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina. (OSV News photo/Mike Segar, Reuters)

(OSV News) — Five Republican presidential candidates participated in a debate in Miami Nov. 8, reacting to Ohio voters approving a measure that will codify abortion access in the state’s constitution through fetal viability.

In a debate hosted by NBC News, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina addressed issues including the Israel-Hamas war, aid to Ukraine amid Russia’s invasion, migration, the opioid crisis and the results of the Ohio abortion referendum.

The pro-life movement’s loss in Ohio follows other electoral defeats for anti-abortion ballot measures in the wake of the Supreme Court’s June 2022 decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned prior precedent that had declared abortion to be a constitutional right and returned the matter back to legislatures. In 2022, voters in California, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana, Vermont and Kansas either rejected new limitations on abortion or expanded legal protections for it. Abortion advocates are seeking to hold similar contests next year.

Abortion and the pro-life movement

Asked for their responses to the outcome in Ohio, DeSantis replied, “We’re better off when we can promote a culture of life,” adding that different states will approach the matter differently. “So you got to work from the bottom up.”

DeSantis — one of two Catholics on the debate stage, the other being Christie — said the pro-life movement has to “do a better job on these referenda.”

“I think of all the stuff that’s happened to the pro-life cause; they have been caught flat-footed on these referenda and they have been losing the referenda,” he said, noting that some voters who would support Republican candidates are voting against abortion restrictions.

“But let’s just be clear, the Democrats have taken a position they will not identify the point at which there should be any protection, all the way up until birth, that is wrong and we cannot stand for that,” he said.

Haley encouraged finding “consensus” on the issue and accused her rivals of not leveling with the American people that a federal 15-week abortion ban is not going to make it through Congress, citing a lack of 60 pro-life votes in the Senate to overcome the upper chamber’s filibuster.

“Let’s agree on how we can ban late-term abortions. Let’s make sure we encourage adoptions and good quality adoptions,” she said.

Scott challenged his rivals to back a 15-week federal limit on abortion, but Haley said Scott did not co-sponsor a Senate bill last year doing just that.

Ramaswamy called the outcome part of a “Republican culture of losing.”

“The Republicans did not have an alternative amendment or vision on the table,” he said, adding “there’s a missing ingredient in this movement: sexual responsibility for men.”

Christie said that for “50 years, conservative lawyers have been arguing that the federal government should have absolutely nothing to do with this issue constitutionally because it’s nowhere in the Constitution.”

“This is an issue that should be decided in each state,” he said. “And I trust the people of this country, state by state, to make the call for themselves. That’s going to lead to a lot of divergence. In Oklahoma, you can’t get an abortion unless the life of the mother is at risk. In my home state of New Jersey, it goes up to nine months that she can have an abortion. I find that morally reprehensible. But that is what the people of our state have voted for. And we should not short-circuit that process. And so in every state, people have the right to weigh in on it.”

Christie said a bigger societal issue is “we’re not pro-life for the whole life.” Christie argued being pro-life for one’s whole life would include other efforts, such as treatment for drug addiction.

Trump and Ukraine

At the debate, more of the candidates more directly criticized their party’s frontrunner, Donald Trump, for declining to participate in debates. Tense moments included when Ramaswamy invoked Haley’s daughter in a conversation about TikTok, and the former South Carolina governor called him “scum.”

“He owes it to you to be on this stage and explain why he should get another chance,” DeSantis said of Trump.

Ramaswamy repeated his opposition to providing aid to Ukraine, and appeared to baselessly suggest the country’s president, who is Jewish, is a Nazi.

“It has celebrated a Nazi in its ranks, the comedian in cargo pants, a man called Zelenskyy, doing it in their own ranks. That is not democratic,” Ramaswamy said.

Ramaswamy claimed that Christians were being persecuted by Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government, which has taken steps to restrict Moscow-affiliated Orthodox churches under the influence of the Russian government as it seeks to fend off that country’s invasion. Ukrainian faith leaders have pushed back on such claims.

Christie argued that the United States made a promise to Ukraine in a bilateral security agreement forged in the early 1990s, and should keep its word.

“This is not a choice,” he said. “This is the price we pay for being the leader of the free world.”

Social security

The candidates also debated ways to keep Social Security solvent.

Christie said there are “only three things that go into determining whether Social Security can be solvent or not: retirement age, eligibility for the program in general, and taxes.” Christie quipped that if Warren Buffett was watching, the billionaire should not be taking Social Security payments.

“There are a lot of programs in this country that we all pay for, that we don’t get a direct benefit from, food stamps is one of them. I’ve never fortunately in my life ever had me or my family on food stamps. But I’m glad it’s there,” he said, adding, “the fact is on Social Security, remember why it was established. It was established as a safety net program to make sure that no one would grow old in this country in poverty. That’s what we got to get back to: rich people should not be collecting Social Security.”

DeSantis said that “as governor of Florida, I know a few people on Social Security.”

“And I know it’s important,” he added, arguing he would prioritize a cost of living adjustment to keep up with inflation.

Kate Scanlon

Kate Scanlon is a national reporter for OSV News covering Washington.