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MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - AUGUST 23: Republican presidential candidates (L-R), former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and Vivek Ramaswamy participate in the first debate of the GOP primary season hosted by FOX News at the Fiserv Forum on August 23, 2023 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.Win McNamee/Getty Images

(LifeSiteNews) — Abortion policy was one of the first topics posed to the Republican candidates who attended the first presidential primary debate Wednesday evening, sparking some tense exchanges over the role of the federal government on the issue.

Former Trump administration U.N. Ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley declared herself “unapologetically pro-life, not because the Republican Party tells me to be, but because my husband was adopted and I had trouble having both of my children.” However, she quickly emphasized the need for “consensus” on the issue – given the unlikelihood of Republicans getting the 60 Senate votes needed to enact a federal ban in the near future – on topics such as banning late-term abortion, encouraging adoption, and ensuring women are not subjected to criminal penalties for abortion (something most pro-life legislation explicitly forbids).

“Let’s treat this like a respectful issue that it is and humanize the situation and stop demonizing the situation,” Haley said.

Her remarks drew pushback from former Vice President Mike Pence, who asserted the need for a 15-week federal ban on abortion as a minimum standard:

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who was the highest-polling candidate on stage but still well behind former President Donald Trump, vowed to “support the cause of life” as president, without clarifying what federal legislation he would sign. On the question of the political viability of a clear pro-life stand, he cited his 20-point re-election last year, and stressed the need to “do the right thing” regardless of political expediency, citing the experience of hearing his child’s heartbeat for the first time and meeting a survivor of an attempted abortion.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson touted his pro-life record as governor while emphasizing the need to make choosing life easier by supporting pregnancy services. U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina reiterated support for a 15-week ban, citing the need to ensure deep-blue states such as California and Illinois cannot permit late-term abortion.

The only candidate to seriously dissent was North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, who called himself a “pro-life governor of a very pro-life state,” yet declared he opposed a federal abortion ban on the grounds that the U.S. Constitution, according to him, leaves the issue to the states (a position not shared by all originalist constitutional scholars, who argue the 14th Amendment specifically tasks Congress with ensuring equal protection of the laws).

Trump, who currently leads the field by a significant margin in national polls, did not attend the debate, refusing to sign the required pledge to support the eventual nominee and instead holding a pre-taped interview with populist pundit Tucker Carlson, which was also released Wednesday night.

Primary voting begins next January with the Iowa caucuses.