And yet, at the vice presidential debate on Wednesday, when moderator Susan Page asked Pence whether he would like to see Indiana ban abortion if the landmark Roe v. Wade decision were overturned, he dodged the question. Suddenly, the anti-abortion crusader had little to say about the issue that has animated much of his public life.
This is a man whose views on abortion are so extreme that he once said, “I long for the day that Roe v. Wade is sent to the ash heap of history.”
During the debate, Pence didn’t mention his prediction that legal abortion will end “in our time” or brag about the progress that the anti-abortion movement has made under the Trump administration. He said he wasn’t even sure how Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, would vote on Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion nationwide in 1973. Instead, he pivoted to attacking former Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his running mate, California Sen. Kamala Harris, falsely accusing them of supporting abortion “up to the moment of birth.”
When given the opportunity to expound on his vision for the future of abortion rights, Pence punted. Trump did the same thing at the presidential debate the week before. When Biden noted that Roe would likely be at stake if Barrett were confirmed, Trump disagreed, saying, “I don’t think so. There’s nothing happening there. You don’t know her view on Roe v. Wade.” His reluctance to discuss how his pick might affect access to abortion was striking considering his pledge in 2016 to only appoint anti-abortion justices.
Now that Trump and his administration are closer than ever to achieving their goal of ending legal abortion, they are tiptoeing around it on the public stage to avoid spelling out their full intentions. Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) also adopted this strategy, downplaying the chances of the Supreme Court overturning Roe even after she signed a brief urging the court to do so earlier this year.
This is likely because the public doesn’t agree with their extreme views on abortion.
“The answer is because they are very much out of the mainstream,” Tresa Undem, a pollster who has tracked opinion on abortion for years, told HuffPost.
While abortion is a complicated, nuanced issue for many people, overall public support remains high. As of 2019, 61% believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, compared with 38% who think it should be illegal in all or most cases, according to the Pew Research Center. And 70% do not want the Supreme Court to completely overturn Roe v. Wade.
Independent voters are twice as likely to support a presidential candidate who is in favor of abortion rights and access, Undem said. So Trump and Pence might be concerned that speaking about restricting abortion could push undecided voters, especially women, to support Biden.
“This administration and Republicans across the country have made major, major progress on their abortion agenda,” she continued. The fact that neither Trump nor Pence were willing to acknowledge that during the debates shows that they know their positions are unpopular.
“They’re taking the noncontroversial position, which is not attacking abortion,” she said.
Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court has thrust the issue of abortion center stage with less than a month until Election Day. The strict Catholic is personally opposed to abortion, and in 2006, she signed a newspaper ad that decried the “barbaric legacy of Roe v. Wade.” Critics worry that if Barrett is appointed, she will undermine abortion rights and even vote to overturn Roe. Anti-abortion groups are enthusiastic about the prospect.
Yet, Barrett and Pence’s anti-abortion stance does not represent the opinions of most voters. A HuffPost/YouGov poll of registered voters conducted after Barrett’s nomination was announced found that a slim majority of the public does not want abortion pushed any further out of reach. When asked how they felt about the Supreme Court’s restrictions on abortion, 29% of respondents said they supported keeping restrictions the same and 25% supported lifting existing restrictions. Only 27% of respondents said they wanted more restrictions on the procedure. The rest of those polled, 19%, were unsure.
Trump also faces a potentially historic gender gap heading into Election Day, with Biden leading with women voters. Abortion is extremely common, considering nearly 1 in 4 U.S. women have the procedure by the age of 45, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit reproductive health care research group.
“It’s quite telling that both Trump and Pence took a hard pass when they were handed the perfect opportunities to articulate what they have said time and again, which is that they are committed to packing the Supreme Court with justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade and return the issue entirely to the states with the goal of banning abortion outright,” Andrea Miller, president of the National Institute for Reproductive Health, told HuffPost. “I think what that tells us is that they are starting to come to terms with the reality that their position is not only out of step with what the vast majority of people in this country want, but it is a truly losing position in this election cycle.”