“Democratic” presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s campaign is trying to walk back comments on abortion that put its candidate more in line with the Republican presidential field than with any actual Democrats. Kennedy told an NBC News reporter he would support a ban on abortion after three months of pregnancy. Republicans who are willing to talk publicly about a federal abortion ban are setting it at 15 weeks. The supposed Democrat called for less.
According to Kennedy’s campaign, he just didn’t hear and/or understand the question “in a crowded, noisy exhibit hall at the Iowa State Fair.” That’s the excuse you use when the candidate was asked a question and smiled and nodded, or said, “We’ll look at all the options,” or something similarly vague. It’s not a viable excuse when your candidate was the one to offer up the problematic details, which is what happened here.
Kennedy wasn’t asked, “Would you support a three-month abortion ban?” He was asked, “Would you sign a federal protection to protect the rights that were in the Roe precedent if you were president?” He responded, “I believe that a decision to abort a child should be up to the women during the first three months of life.” In addition to the startling—at least, if we consider Kennedy a Democrat—support for a federal abortion ban at 12 weeks, that’s an answer rife with anti-abortion language. He talks about aborting a “child” rather than an embryo, which is the correct term for the first 10 weeks of pregnancy, or a fetus, which is the term thereafter. He also refers to the first three months of pregnancy as the first three months of “life.”
The reporter attempted to understand this answer, which was so out of step with the party Kennedy is claiming to be part of. “So you would cap it at 15 weeks?” He said, “Yes.” She continued, “Or 21 weeks?” And he said “Yes, for three months.” Which is less than 15 weeks or 21 weeks. The reporter followed up again, just to be sure. “So three months, you would sign a federal cap on that?” And Kennedy said, “Yes, I would.”
This reporter must have really wanted to be sure Kennedy could not claim she’d misrepresented him or taken him out of context, so she followed up again. “So not unlimited access to abortion, as many in the Democratic Party would?”
“I think the states, you know, once a child is viable outside the womb, I think the state has an interest in protecting that child,” Kennedy elaborated. “You know, I think the state has an interest at every level, but at some point, you know, I’m against, I’m for medical freedom. I think individuals ought to be able to make their own choices.”
Okay okay, wait a minute. First the man says three months and then he says “once a child is viable outside the womb.” As a reminder, viability was the Roe standard, and viability is usually reached around 24 weeks. That’s a lot more than three months. Double, actually.
The reporter followed up one more time, suggesting that Kennedy’s fight for “medical freedom” was why she was surprised to hear him endorsing such a strict abortion ban, and Kennedy again appeared to equate three months with viability.
“Well, because, you know, I think at some point you’d say, the state, I would personally not, I think the states have a, you know, a right to protect a child once the child becomes viable,” he said. “That right increases and I think there’s very very few abortions that are performed after that time anyway. I think most abortions are performed in the first three months of life and I think that’s what, you know, I’ve fought harder than anybody in this country for medical freedom.” (By the end of that last sentence, he may have realized this was not going well.)
Kennedy is correct that most abortions happen in the first three months of pregnancy. That does not mean that three months and the point of viability are remotely the same. Some abortions come after 12 weeks because the woman couldn’t afford an earlier abortion and had to save up money, so a 12-week ban has a disproportionate impact on low-income women. Some abortions come after 12 weeks because a woman didn’t realize she was pregnant or couldn’t admit she was pregnant or had experienced trauma that made it difficult to make a choice earlier. And some abortions come after 12 weeks because the major ultrasound during a pregnancy, the one at which fetal anatomy is carefully checked, comes at 19 or 20 weeks, and it’s at that scan that many conditions incompatible with life are discovered.
What Kennedy’s answers, as the interview goes on, may suggest is that he did not realize he was proposing an abortion ban. He may actually have thought he was endorsing the Roe viability standard. But he didn’t take the reporter’s surprise as a hint that he should change course, that “three months” was something other than a “yes” to the question, “Would you sign a federal protection to protect the rights that were in the Roe precedent if you were president?” Alternatively, maybe Kennedy doesn’t know that there are not 21 or 24 weeks in three months. Who can say?
What’s very clear here is that claiming it was “a crowded, noisy exhibit hall at the Iowa State Fair” does not hold up as an excuse. Kennedy said what he said. He said it in detail, and repeatedly. The options here are that he either supports a 12-week abortion ban, or he does not realize that 12 weeks is really, really far from fetal viability (in the fruit-based measurement system of pregnancy trackers, a 12-week fetus is the size of a lime—just over two inches long and weighing around two ounces) and thus from the rights guaranteed under Roe. None of these options qualify him for the presidency.