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Opinion Pay attention to Nikki Haley, Republicans. This is how to talk about abortion.

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley speaks about abortion policy in Arlington, Va., on April 25. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
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Republican presidential candidates need to figure out how to talk abortion in a way that satisfies pro-life voters without offending those who are moderately pro-choice. The declared candidates so far have offered sharply different approaches. Former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley’s is easily the best.

This is a thorny question for Republicans because of the gulf between the views of Republican primary voters and swing voters. Avid Republicans are staunchly against abortion, and pro-life activists tend to push that consensus as far as they can take it. They have successfully enacted six-week bans in states such as Texas, Florida and Georgia and near-total bans in deep-red places such as North Dakota. While a significant number of GOP voters remain pro-choice, aspiring nominees are clearly helped by taking a strongly pro-life position.

Swing voters, however, are not pro-life. Polls have long shown that moderates support abortion access in the first trimester of pregnancy, with substantial numbers supporting it well into the second trimester. Most of these voters have not traditionally prioritized their abortion beliefs at the voting booth, but there is some evidence the Dobbs decision is pushing them to do so. Preventing that from happening, and thereby saving the opportunity for pro-life groups to begin to change peoples’ minds, should be the movement’s top goal.

Instead, many national groups are making passage of federal legislation to regulate abortion access their primary goal. That’s the position of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, an organization which has gone so far as to say that it cannot support a Republican candidate who refuses to back a federal law restricting abortion access at some point during pregnancy. This arguably plays into the agenda favored by abortion-rights activists and the Democratic Party, as it raises the chance that the issue will become a larger factor as pro-choice swing voters decide who they will support.

Haley’s position, delivered in an address in Virginia on Tuesday, offers a nuanced yet principled approach to this political and moral conundrum. She reiterated her pro-life position and made no rhetorical nods to the language of choice. She also avoided taking the same view as former president Donald Trump, who has disparaged the Dobbs decision and whose campaign has stated he contends abortion is purely an issue for states to resolve. Haley makes clear that she will back federal pro-life legislation when there is national consensus to do so.

Her enunciation of what that consensus consists of, however, is far from what pro-lifers want. She states that there is a national agreement that “abortion up until the time of birth is a bridge too far.” Assuming she is referring to third-trimester abortions, she’s right as a matter of public opinion — but that would bar only a tiny fraction of abortions. Her speech makes no mention of the 15-week national ban favored by groups such as Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America and avoids any discussion of federal action to ban or restrict access to mifepristone, a drug used to induce abortions early in a pregnancy. Again, this is wise as a matter of politics, but far from where pro-lifers currently stand.

That gap is their fault, not hers. National opinion has tilted in the pro-choice direction ever since Roe v. Wade created a national right to abortion. That majority is not going to agree to federal legislation that sets a nationwide 15-week ceiling on abortions while allowing states to set stricter bans, as Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America wants. Continuing to advocate it only fuels fears that Republicans would enact a national, total abortion ban if they could. That’s analogous to choosing to fight on a field of your enemy’s choice.

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Haley understands what too many pro-lifers do not: The movement must change people’s minds before it can change laws. “We must persuade people and find consensus,” she wisely states, “not push them farther away.” The question is not whether we should do this; it’s how.

Haley could have done more to woo pro-lifers to see her approach as the wise course that it is. She did not provide any specific ideas to persuade people. Instead, she only retold the story of how, as governor of South Carolina, she persuaded the state legislature to remove the Confederate flag from the State Capitol grounds after the horrific racist murders in Charleston. How will she do the same on the abortion issue? Haley needs to offer specifics if she wants pro-lifers to follow her.

Haley rightly says that saving babies and protecting moms should be the nation’s top priority. How best to do that under present circumstances are strategic and prudential questions. Her approach, fleshed out with more detail, would be the best path forward for the pro-life movement and the best chance to elect a pro-life president.