WASHINGTON -- Four of the seven Republican presidential candidates reaffirmed their pro-life positions and pledged to protect fetal "personhood" both legislatively and constitutionally Tuesday night.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Texas Gov. Rick Perry participated in the "pro-life teletown hall" organized by Personhood USA and other pro-life groups. The call came less than a week before the Jan. 3 Iowa Republican caucus, where anti-abortion and Christian voters are expected to play a significant role. More than 40,000 largely anti-abortion listeners tuned in on the radio or called in to the forum, according to the organizers.
The candidates took questions from some of the listeners as well as from Personhood USA's CEO Keith Mason, while syndicated conservative radio host Steve Deace served as moderator of the forum, which was broadcast on his program and 88 radio stations nationwide.
Personhood USA is best known as the group whose pledge requires that signors "defend all innocent human life," and reaffirm that "Abortion and the intentional killing of an innocent human being are always wrong and should be prohibited." The four candidates who participated in the call have all signed the pledge, as has Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), who issued a controversial clarification to his signing. Two candidates, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, have not signed the pledge.
Personhood USA spokeswoman Jennifer Mason told The Huffington Post Tuesday that all seven candidates had been invited to participate.
"We believe this forum was for candidates who signed the pledge without reservations, and if a candidate claims to be a Republican, then they should have no problem signing this pledge," Mason said.
During the call, each candidate played up his or her unique strength when it comes to the question of abortion rights, and each answered the same two questions posed by Personhood USA's Keith Mason: what shape Personhood legislation would take if the candidate were to become president, and what they would do in the event that the Supreme Court ruled Personhood legislation unconstitutional.
Each speaking in turn, Perry stressed his intent to appoint pro-life judges to the Supreme Court, Bachmann underscored her opposition to President Obama's Affordable Care Act, and Santorum reiterated his pro-life record in the Senate. Gingrich, not surprisingly, offered the boldest proposal of the night, saying he would "write [a Personhood] bill so that it is not appealable," and cited an example from 1802, when Thomas Jefferson and James Madison removed more than a dozen federal judges. Gingrich also pointed listeners to an extensive paper on his website, where he offers a controversial plan to subpoena federal judges to testify before Congress in the event that their rulings are deemed "Anti-American" by a hypothetical Gingrich administration.
Speaking first, Perry promised to "enforce the right to life" with a "human life amendment ... without waiting for the courts to overturn Roe vs. Wade," the current legal precedent that protects a woman's right to an abortion. "Roe vs. Wade will be overturned," he continued, "with a true pro-life president possibly appointing upwards of two or three new Supreme Court justices, so that would be my goal."
Perry also offered new details about what he characterized earlier Tuesday as a "transformation" in his position on abortion in cases of rape or incest. The change stemmed from a meeting with Personhood USA spokeswoman Rebecca Kiessling, a pro-life attorney, he said.
"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 [I have previously supported]."
"I would suggest that my pro-life position has been rather strong as governor of Texas," he continued, "but she made a a statement to me that pierced my heart, and I will suggest to you that as I signed that [Personhood] pledge … God was working on my heart."
Bachmann quoted the title of her new book "Core of Conviction" in her opening sentence, and pointed out that among the GOP candidates she was the first signor of the Personhood USA pledge. A source within Personhood USA said on background, "She signed the pledge and returned it within twenty minutes, which was an extraordinarily short amount of time."
Bachmann also focused her remarks on her efforts to repeal Obama's Affordable Care Act, but she didn't shy away from taking shots at other candidates as well. "We have candidates in this race who don't understand the sanctity of life," she said, ostensibly referring to fellow Republicans, "and I'm the only candidate in the race who actually will repeal Obamacare."
"The president can put abortion pills for girls 8 years of age, 11 years of age, on the bubblegum aisle," Bachmann continued, apparently in reference to a recommendation by the FDA that the morning after pill be available over the counter, which both the administration and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius recently rejected.
Asked how she would react were the Supreme Court to strike down Personhood legislation, Bachmann said, "Congress and the president need to retake back their power and authority and resubmit legislation and work it through ... The Supreme Court can't arbitrarily tell us what the law of the land is." The other two branches of government should "reclaim that authority to make law," she added.
Santorum didn't specifically outline what he would do as president to defend Personhood legislation, but said that "irrespective of what the court does, you do what you do, and you fight!" Santorum's focus was on legislative items, but he said "you can go the constitutional amendment route, which is a harder route to take, but it's really important to continue to challenge the court so it can see the error of its ways."
Santorum was likely aided among listeners Tuesday by the fact that he has received the endorsement of Bob Vander Plaats, the influential founder of the Family Leader, an Iowa-based Christian organization that promotes faith-based positions in national politics.
Gingrich went last, launching quickly into his historical example of Thomas Jefferson's challenge to federal judges in 1802.
Like the other candidates, Gingrich also promised to extend his pro-life views to the State Department, where he would reinstate the Mexico City Policy, put in place by President Ronald Reagan, which barred the United States from providing foreign aid funds to family planning groups which provided abortions. Obama overturned the policy upon taking office.
Gingrich went a step further, however, promising, to "overhaul the U.S. Foreign Service to get rid of the people who are aggressively pro-abortion and aggressively trying to pressure other governments into adopting pro-abortion positions."
Gingrich was cut off at the close of his remarks due to a glitch. At the close of the call, an announcer said Gingrich would be back to take listeners questions. But when the radio broadcast was over, Gingrich was gone. Mason, the Personhood USA spokeswoman, said there was a technical difficulty with the radio station, and Personhood USA has "extended apologies to Speaker Gingrich for the technical glitch."