WASHINGTON -- In the competition for the toughest anti-abortion stance in Iowa, GOP candidates this week have adopted more extreme positions on abortion than they have previously ever held. But their shift toward extremity for the sake of Iowa's evangelical base could come back to haunt the eventual nominee in the general election.
Over the past month, conservative Christian and anti-abortion groups have put the Republican presidential candidates under great scrutiny and pressure to define exactly where they stand on reproductive rights. The Christian group Concerned Women for America warned in a statement last week that the candidates would be "wise to focus on their values" if they want to win in Iowa and released a video rallying evangelical women voters.
"On January 3rd all eyes will be on Iowa and the voters, as caucus voters begin the process of choosing our nation's leader. Evangelical Christians are one of the largest voting blocs in America, and the majority of swing voters are women," Penny Nance, CEO and president of Concerned Women for America, said in the statement. "If you are an Iowan who cares about life and family, then January 3rd is the day to make your voice heard. This is the most important election of our lifetime."
The GOP candidates have taken the bait. Nearly all of them have promised to support a constitutional amendment banning abortion even in cases of rape and incest, and they all want to defund Planned Parenthood and the Title X family planning program, which have enjoyed bipartisan support until the past few years. These policies are to the right of those of President George W. Bush, who increased funding for Title X in 2005 and supported abortion exceptions for rape, incest and to protect the life of the mother.
Even Personhood USA, whose signature measure establishing fetal personhood is so extreme that it failed to pass in what may be the most socially conservative state in the nation (Mississippi) and continues to fail in multiple state courts, has succeeded in winning the attention and support of the GOP candidates. Rep. Ron Paul (Texas), Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich all have signed a Personhood USA petition pledging to support an unprecedented "human life amendment" to the Constitution and to endorse legislation making clear that "the 14th Amendment protections apply to unborn children." Four of them also participated in the group's tele-town hall event Tuesday night to tout their anti-abortion credentials to 40,000 Iowan listeners.
A personhood amendment would ban abortion even in cases of rape, incest or to protect a mother's health, and it could affect the legality of some forms of birth control, in vitro fertilization and stem cell research. It is not only the most hardline position a crop of primary candidates has ever held on abortion; it is also markedly more restrictive than many of the candidates' own previously held positions.
Perry announced for the first time on Tuesday that he no longer believes abortion should be allowed in cases of rape or incest after Personhood USA spokeswoman Rebecca Kiessling told him a story that "pierced [his] heart."
"We had a fairly lengthy and heartfelt conversation about how she was conceived in rape," Perry said, "and I couldn't come up with an answer to defend the exceptions."
Perry's new position falls to the right of most federal and state legislation, including the Hyde Amendment, which bans the use of federal government funds for abortions except in cases of rape, incest and when the life of the mother is at stake.
Paul, who has said that he fundamentally disagrees with Personhood USA's plan to use the 14th Amendment to protect fetal personhood and that the issue should be left to the states, directly contradicted his own libertarian beliefs by signing the pledge anyway.
Gingrich, who recently broke with the personhood movement and questioned the legal feasibility of defining personhood at fertilization, also signed the pledge and boasted that he "might choose to ignore a [Supreme] Court decision" on abortion as president.
Although Bachmann's position on abortion has always been far to the right, on Tuesday night she touted her anti-abortion beliefs by misrepresenting President Barack Obama's record.
"The president can put abortion pills for girls 8 years of age, 11 years of age, on the bubblegum aisle," Bachmann said, referring to the Obama administration's recent decision to do the exact opposite and keep the morning-after pill off drug store shelves.
Mitt Romney didn't sign the personhood pledge or participate in the forum, but his position on abortion and family planning has notoriously shifted the furthest from where it was during his 2002 Massachusetts gubernatorial campaign, when he pledged to support state-funded abortions. His spokesperson, Gail Gitcho, told MSNBC that he now strictly opposes abortion and that abortion is the one substantial issue on which he has admitted to shifting his position.
"These candidates are saying, 'I'll do everything you want. Defund Planned Parenthood? Done. Constitutional ban on abortion? Done.' Every time anti-choice groups say, 'Jump,' these candidates say, 'How high?'" Ted Miller, communications director for NARAL Pro-Choice America, told HuffPost.
None of the candidates' campaigns responded to requests for comment.
While their new positions on abortion may resonate with Iowa's many evangelical Christians and win them caucus votes, national polling shows that their views are out of step with most voters. A CNN/ORC poll conducted in September showed that 78 percent of respondents believe that abortion should be legal in some or all circumstances.
Since Iowa, South Carolina and Florida tend to be more conservative on abortion, Nance said she thinks it's a smart strategy to focus on abortion during the primaries and mobilize all the single-issue voters who will only come out to the polls for that reason.
"Let them compete for being the most pro-life! I'm happy to have them on record saying the most pro-life statements of their careers," she said. "It certainly helps in Iowa, it may or may not in New Hampshire, but it will in South Carolina and Florida. They have to win a primary in order to get to the general. Then they can talk less about abortion and start focusing on the economy and jobs, which they need to."
But reproductive rights groups are not going to let voters forget about the hardline position the future GOP nominee took on abortion back in Iowa.
"These candidates might be scoring points with a very narrow segment of voters in the primary, but when they have to start explaining those views to voters in battleground states during the general election, it's going to be a big liability for them," Miller said. "And we're going to make sure of that."