Pence's career-long stance against abortion leaves out the details

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In the more than three decades former Vice President Mike Pence has been involved in politics, his opposition to abortion rights has been one of his bedrock principles. But in that time he’s avoided settling on precisely what he would do if given the reins of power.

Now with the Supreme Court poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, the issue has returned to center stage and Republicans at all levels are staking a claim on the issue — from tightening the window allowing for abortions to within six weeks of conception to banning it almost outright, as happened in Oklahoma.

Since leaving the White House last January, Pence has built a would-be presidential campaign focused heavily on courting anti-abortion activists and Christian right voters. And conservative commentators have credited him with stepping out front on abortion at the same time that his former boss and potential 2024 opponent, Donald Trump, has skirted the issue in public.

During a recent fundraiser Pence headlined for the Carolina Pregnancy Center, an influential anti-abortion group in the early-voting state of South Carolina, the devout Christian hearkened back to his own salvation experience, in the spring of 1978, teeing up one of his applause lines.

Former Vice President Mike Pence stands at a podium.
Former Vice President Mike Pence at a fundraiser for Carolina Pregnancy Center on May 5 in Spartanburg, S.C. (Meg Kinnard/AP)

“Ever since that day, like all of you here, I have stood without apology for the sanctity of human life and stood with young women in crisis pregnancies with compassion and care all across this country,” Pence said to applause from the crowd.

But he hasn’t locked in a clear position in recent years. Exceptions for cases of rape and incest? He was for it in 2012 but hasn’t said where he is now. Bans from six weeks after conception or 15 weeks? Pence’s political advocacy group, Advancing American Freedom, filed an amicus brief supporting the Mississippi state ban after 15 weeks, but he hasn’t said if he would take it further if given the chance.

A Pence spokesman declined to answer where Pence stands specifically on abortion, whether he would support a near-absolute ban akin to Oklahoma’s or something closer to the former mainstream Republican position, which allowed for abortions in cases of rape or incest or to save the life of the mother. Instead, the spokesman referred to Pence’s recent speeches, where he has promised that Roe v. Wade would end up in the “ash heap of history.”

For decades, opposing Roe v. Wade, promising to appoint judges and Supreme Court justices that would end federal abortion protections, and proposing tighter restrictions on abortion access (while still abiding the bounds of the Roe decision) have been benchmark moves for Republican politicians.

A demonstrator holds up a sign with pictures of Supreme Court Justices Thomas, Kavanaugh, Alito, Barrett and Gorsuch. The sign reads: Justices who voted in support of overturning Roe vs. Wade.
Demonstrators protest outside the Supreme Court on May 3. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

But with the likely reversal of Roe, the playing field is shifting to Republicans’ specific views on abortion — something the Democrats, led by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, are pushing with a vote on abortion rights legislation in the Senate on Wednesday.

Asked about where mainstream Republicans stand on abortion at the moment, Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List, said there’s no single position since the issue would move to statehouses, where state lawmakers would hash it out.

“There is no one-size-fits-all. That’s the best thing about this moment, it’s a moment where everyone will argue it out in the public square,” said Dannenfelser, who is also a longtime Pence ally, on a conference call with reporters Tuesday.

Wes Anderson, a veteran Republican pollster working with SBA List and others, said he has been testing the question of where Republicans are on the contours of an abortion ban for the past 18 months and routinely gets varying answers.

If you put “10 Republicans in a room, [you’d get] 10 different answers — but [still have] excitement to have that debate,” Anderson said. But “somewhere between heartbeat and first trimester is where most Republicans are,” he said, referring to bans that take effect based on the detection of a heartbeat or the completion of the first trimester of pregnancy.

During his dozen years in Congress from 2001 to 2013, Pence pushed hard for a “personhood” bill that would define life as starting at conception and to defund Planned Parenthood completely, a fight that earned him almost unshakable support from social conservatives and the Christian right.

Mike Pence and other anti-abortion Republicans stand at a podium.
Then-Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, right, and then-Ohio Rep. Jean Schmidt at a news conference with fellow anti-abortion Republicans at the Capitol in 2010. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

But when he left Congress to run for governor of Indiana in 2012, he pointedly dodged questions of whether he would push new abortion restrictions once in office. And while in office he largely avoided the issue, only signing a limit on abortions in March 2016 after he decided he wouldn’t seek the White House.

Pence’s avoidance of abortion and other hot-button social issues as governor (he came late to the battle over a “religious freedom” bill in 2015, though he bore the brunt of the national backlash), while courting national donors for a possible White House bid, left Indiana conservatives and anti-abortion activists leery of his dedication to the fight over abortion, same-sex marriage and other issues, said one longtime Indiana anti-abortion activist.

“He wanted to ride his reputation as a conservative while not really doing anything,” the activist said.

Democrats say that Pence is very clearly anti-abortion and opposes women’s health and reproductive rights. But beyond that, things get fuzzier.

“On the surface level, [he is] a consistent politician, then a somewhat wavier politician than most, when you dig in on things,” said Pat Dennis, vice president of research at the Democrat-backing group American Bridge. “If you want to talk about people with long public records, Mike Pence is a guy that’s been around for a very long time and been through many types of public opinion on this and has tried to, to the extent he can, be a chameleon politician.”

Former Vice President Mike Pence speaks to Carolina Pregnancy Center director Alexia Newman next to a mobile ultrasound unit.
Pence speaks to Carolina Pregnancy Center director Alexia Newman on May 5 in Spartanburg, S.C. (Meg Kinnard/AP)