Ben Carson greets audience members after speaking at Iowa State University on Saturday. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Iowa conservatives should prepare themselves to hear a lot in the coming days about Ben Carson’s record on abortion.
Carson, who has no prior electoral experience, is now the clear frontrunner in Iowa, the first state to vote in the presidential primary process. Carson leads Donald Trump by an average of 10 points in four of the last state five polls.
Rival campaigns have been focused for a while on Carson’s past actions and statements on abortion. That focus is set to increase as they try to reduce his lead.
Carson’s opponents will be pointing out that in the early ’90s, the famous neurosurgeon referred patients to doctors for abortions, and that he publicly said at that time that he would “never advocate it’s illegal for a person to get an abortion.”
Already, Iowans are being polled by the Des Moines Register on how they feel about Carson having “conducted research on tissue from aborted fetuses.”
Carson has categorically denied having done any such research. His name was one of four on a 1992 study that did involve fetal tissue, but he said in August that his “only involvement in this study was supplying tumors that I had removed from my patients.”
Other doctors then compared the tumors to other tissue for their research, he said. While some of the tissue in the study did come from aborted fetuses, according to the paper itself, Carson and his fellow researchers had nothing to do with those abortions, he said. “The fetal tissue that was viewed in this study by others was not collected for this study,” he wrote.
Likely Republican caucus-goers in Iowa, who were asked about Carson having done work on an “aborted fetus,” did not respond positively to the description. A total of 48 percent of survey respondents said it was “unattractive,” while 31 percent said it was “attractive” and 21 percent said they didn’t know what to think.
At a recent campaign rally, Carson’s placid demeanor gave way to some noticeable anger when he was discussing the matter. “They know better. They’re liars. They’re just total liars,” Carson said of his accusers.
As for his past positions on abortion itself, Carson told Yahoo News that he was “a fairly radical Democrat and had a different belief system” in the past.
“That has changed over the course of time,” he said, declaring himself to “favor life.”
But he still refused to say in that interview whether he thought Roe v. Wade, the 1973 law legalizing abortion, should be overturned.
This past Sunday, on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Carson finally said that Roe should be overturned.
The biggest outstanding issue on his record remains his referrals of patients to other doctors for abortions, a practice that his campaign as recently as August defended.
“He believes in quality medical care, number one, and secondly, he believes in people making their own decisions based on facts and information,” Carson spokesman Doug Watts told Politico.
“Referring it on does not mean he is advocating it; he’s advocating they are getting qualified medical supervision,” Watts said.
Rival campaigns are cautious about criticizing Carson because he is so admired for his inspiring personal story, and his status as a nonpolitician.
But on this issue, they feel emboldened to speak out.
Responding to Carson’s comments about Roe v. Wade on “Meet the Press,” a spokesman for former senator Rick Santorum lashed out at the doctor.
“So how does he reconcile making abortion referrals as a doctor?” wrote Matt Beynon, a Santorum adviser, on Twitter.
Beynon said in a phone call that Carson “will have to explain why he was making abortion referrals,” as well as why he recently recommended that women use RU-486 for emergency contraception in cases of rape and incest, when the medication is traditionally used for early-term chemical abortions, rather than as emergency contraception. Several anti-abortion groups are opposed to the use of the drug and to other forms of emergency contraception, which they consider to be abortifacient.
Carson also has given conflicting answers lately about when life begins. He said in August it was “certainly once the heart starts beating.” But of late, he has changed his answer. On “Meet the Press” this past Sunday, he answered affirmatively when asked if life begins at conception.