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Ron DeSantis Stays Quiet on Abortion
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Ron DeSantis Stays Quiet on Abortion

The Florida governor has been mum on the issue since signing a six-week ban.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signing Florida’s 15-week abortion in 2022. (Photo by Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Dozens of pro-life advocates surrounded Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at a Spanish-language church outside Orlando last year as he signed a law banning abortions after the 15th week of pregnancy. News cameras captured the scene—complete with a “Protect Life” banner in the background—ensuring the governor received prominent coverage of his event for the evening broadcasts.

“This will represent the most significant protections for life that have been enacted in this state in a generation,” DeSantis said as the crowd behind him, nearly all women, applauded.

But 12 months later, the signing ceremony for Florida’s new, more restrictive six-week abortion ban last week was shorter and quieter. DeSantis signed the bill on April 13 in his Tallahassee office. He was flanked by many of the same pro-life activists from a year earlier, but no TV cameras captured the moment and his office waited hours to announce the signing—at 11 p.m.

The contrast illustrates how even on the eve of launching his presidential campaign, DeSantis seems unsure how to navigate the national debate on abortion and whether he would push for a federal abortion policy in the White House. Pro-life activists are also unclear about where DeSantis would fall on the question of the federal government’s role in setting national abortion policy. Those who spoke to The Dispatch remain optimistic, but caution that DeSantis is still not a presidential candidate and are reserving judgment until he begins the campaign.

Since his late-night statement, DeSantis has been all but silent about Florida’s new law. During a speech the following day at the evangelical Liberty University, the governor only said his administration has “promoted a culture of life.” His public remarks have focused more on his ongoing dispute with the Walt Disney Company and the promotion of his new book, The Courage to Be Free. A spokesman for DeSantis’ political operation did not respond to questions from The Dispatch.

But some pro-life activists tell The Dispatch they place more importance on actions than words, praising DeSantis for the new law. Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life, said the law represents a “major milestone” and a “critical moment” for DeSantis as he prepares to run for the GOP nomination. But she said she was unsure why the governor has so far refrained from offering a public defense of the six-week ban.

“Is this an issue that motivates him? I don’t know,” Hawkins said, adding that Students for Life has worked in the past with the governor’s office, but not with the DeSantis political team.

One of DeSantis’ most important social conservative allies in Florida is John Stemberger, the president of the Florida Family Policy Council who attended the bill signing last week. Stemberger told The Dispatch that DeSantis has been a crucial champion of the pro-life cause in Florida.

“I know that he doesn’t talk about it much. But he certainly acts,” Stemberger said. “I do think he’s trying to find his way to talk about the issue.”

While voters who support restricting abortion are a key part of the Republican coalition, party leaders are less confident abortion is a winning issue with the general electorate. A series of disappointments for Republicans at the polls following last year’s Dobbs Supreme Court decision have sowed fear among many GOP campaign consultants that nationalizing the issue is a sure loser for the party.

But a national abortion policy is exactly what the pro-life movement wants from a Republican presidential nominee in 2024. 

“We need a candidate that says there’s a federal role here,” says Kelsey Pritchard of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, one of the most influential anti-abortion organizations. “Some Republicans have been saying this is for the states now and the federal government shouldn’t touch this. We disagree. There needs to be a federal gestational limit.”

To that end, pro-life activists have said they are disappointed by reports that former President Donald Trump has privately expressed a desire not to focus on abortion because of how the issue would hurt his candidacy. A Trump campaign spokesman told the Washington Post Thursday that the Supreme Court “got it right when they ruled this is an issue that should be decided at the State level.” 

Marjorie Dannefelser, the president of SBA Pro-Life America, issued a statement Thursday blasting Trump’s “completely inaccurate reading” of the Dobbs decision and calling his a “morally indefensible position” on leaving abortion policy solely to states.

“We will oppose any presidential candidate who refuses to embrace at a minimum a 15-week national standard to stop painful late-term abortions while allowing states to enact further protections,” Dannenfelser said in her statement.

Some activists say they are hopeful another candidate will emerge as a more forceful defender of abortion limits. Republican presidential candidate and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, who has skirted the question of whether she supports a federal limit, will deliver remarks next week in Virginia on abortion, according to her campaign. And former Vice President Mike Pence, who is expected to run for president, said immediately after the court’s Dobbs decision that abortion should be outlawed in every state.

As for DeSantis’ own approach as a likely presidential candidate, even those who advise him on abortion say the governor is likely still figuring it out.

“I think he is trying to understand the proper role of the federal government. He wants to make sure the Constitution is being respected,” said Stemberger. “I do think that he is thinking through and trying to understand what is the right thing to do, what is procedurally the right thing to do.”

Michael Warren is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was an on-air reporter at CNN and a senior writer at the Weekly Standard. When Mike is not reporting, writing, editing, and podcasting, he is probably spending time with his wife and three sons.