Four GOP presidential candidates discussed their pro-life views with about 25,000 participants in a tele-town hall sponsored by Personhood USA that was also broadcast on a conservative talk radio show on Tuesday night.
The candidates--Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum--spent about 10 minutes taking questions from the hosts and callers, hoping to woo conservative Iowa voters ahead of the Hawkeye state caucus next Tuesday. All four had previously signed a "personhood" pledge distributed by Personhood USA, declaring they would pursue legislation to declare that life begins at fertilization, if elected president.
Perry reaffirmed a change in position on the issue of abortion during the call, something he had first made public earlier in the day. He said he no longer believes in legal abortion in cases of rape or incest. He said he met with a woman who had been "conceived in rape" and that experience, paired with reflections over the Christmas holiday, sparked his decision.
"I would suggest my pro-life position has been rather strong as the governor of Texas, but she made a statement to me that was really profound and pierced my heart," he said during the call. "All I can tell you is God was working on my heart."
Perry, once a front-runner and now bottom-tier candidate in the race, is feverishly working to win over Iowa evangelicals to prolong his candidacy.
Bachmann was the only candidate to call out rivals for their inconsistency on the pro-life issue. Secure in her record and demonstrating an obvious grasp of the key words and issues pro-life voters care about, she discussed the importance of not relegating pro-lifers to the sidelines.
"It would be a grave mistake for our party to nominate a candidate that has been inconsistent on the life issue," she said. "And we have candidates in this race that have been, who don't understand that life begins at conception. We have candidates that don't understand that or think it's OK to use an unborn human life for experimentation or research."
Santorum, well known for arguing the pro-life cause during his time in the Senate, also sought to convince voters of his bona fides.
"Life beginning at conception is not a belief, it's not an article of faith, it's an article of fact. It's a biological fact. Yes, the Bible tells us all that, but it's also reason," he said.
And Gingrich drew on his legislative career to show his commitment to the issue. He told listeners that he had supported the Hyde amendment, which bars federal funds for abortions except in cases of rape or incest, during his time in the House because it was the best compromise available.
"The Hyde amendment includes exceptions because that was the only way you could get a majority to pass it," he said. "There is a doctrine that says if you have to choose an imperfect tool in order to save the maximum number of lives, it's morally acceptable even if it's tragic."
Pro-lifers in Iowa can be a powerful voting bloc if they unify behind a single candidate, as proven by 2008 GOP caucus winner Mike Huckabee. But the crowded field this year has splintered support, with conservatives Bachmann, Gingrich, Santorum, and Perry all garnering about 10 percent support in recent polling. The split puts Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at the head of the field, despite getting support from between 20 percent and 25 percent of likely voters.
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