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RFK Jr. rarely mentions abortion — and sends mixed signals when he does

For many Americans, November’s presidential election is about one issue: abortion. President Biden hopes that a pro-abortion rights message will carry him to reelection, and Donald Trump regularly brags about his role in the end of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that protected abortion rights nationwide.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the longshot independent hopeful with a famous family name whose candidacy has centered heavily on his skepticism of vaccines, barely mentions abortion. When he does, he often sends mixed signals.

Kennedy has said he believes the decision to seek an abortion should be left to women and their doctors. But he has held just one campaign event focused on abortion, an October visit to an Atlanta facility founded by Angela Stanton King — an anti-abortion and criminal justice reform activist and former Trump supporter whom the ex-president pardoned for her role in a car theft ring. In the months that followed Kennedy’s appearance at Stanton King’s facility, which aims to convince women to carry their pregnancies to term, he has repeated her false and inflammatory claims that abortion providers systematically target Black women.

Kennedy has avoided taking a concrete stance on the nation’s patchwork of abortion bans and U.S. House Republicans’ efforts to pass federal restrictions, calling abortion a “culture war issue” used to divide people. He has said that “every abortion is a tragedy,” but has few plans to take on the issue in the White House.

Kennedy mentioned abortion just twice in the 11 speeches and campaign events that appear on his YouTube page. He mentioned the word “vaccine” 10 times. On X, formerly Twitter, he’s mentioned the word “abortion” five times since the start of last year. He posted the word “vaccine” 64 times in the same period.

“He’s trying to avoid what’s probably the most salient issue right now,” Roy Behr, the author of “Third Parties in America: Citizen Response to Major Party Failure.’

Kennedy’s ambiguity on abortion — an issue many voters say is a major motivator for them this race — may not hurt him in November. Kennedy, the nephew of a former president and son of a former U.S. attorney general, has appealed to a politically diverse group of supporters with nuanced views, including some who identify as conservative but weary of Trump and others who describe themselves as liberals unenthused with Biden. Outlining a clearer abortion position could hurt his standing with one or more of those groups.

Kennedy doesn’t focus on abortion in speeches because it is a divisive issue, his campaign told The Washington Post.

“Mr. Kennedy does not want to add fuel to the fire,” campaign spokeswoman Stefanie Spear wrote in an email, citing issues including chronic disease, infrastructure, disarmament and farming practices that protect the environment. “These issues also have the potential to unify the country, unlike abortion, which is fundamentally divisive. So, Mr. Kennedy makes his position plain, but does not dwell on the subject.”

Spear said Kennedy, who has not previously shared his thoughts on Arizona’s state Supreme Court decision to revive a near-total ban on abortion earlier this month, opposes the ruling. She said he also disagreed with Trump’s proposal to leave abortion restrictions up to the states.

After The Post enquired about Kennedy’s abortion position, the campaign added a new abortion policy page to its website, proposing “a massive subsidized daycare initiative” paid for by funds Kennedy would reroute from Ukraine war aid. The page doesn’t provide any more information about how Kennedy would respond to abortion bans in states.

Twelve percent of voters, including two-thirds of Democrats, say abortion is the “most important issue” in their 2024 vote, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll last month. Down the ballot, voters have signaled their disapproval of strict bans on abortion, supporting statewide referendums and candidates that would protect or expand abortion access.

This election marks the first time many voters will be able to weigh in post-Roe, and Kennedy’s opponents could use his near-silence on abortion rights to cast doubt on his commitment to them, Democratic pollster Nancy Zdunkewicz said. New stories of women in dangerous, difficult circumstances who are unable to get abortions resonate with voters, she argued.

“It’s all way too real for people in a way that it just wasn’t before,” Zdunkewicz said.

Kennedy is likely to attract voters who agree with him on vaccines and feel disaffected with the two major political parties, but will face more difficulty attracting people who aren’t interested in one of his primary concerns such as vaccine safety, said Bernard Tamas, a political science professor at Valdosta State University and author of “The Demise and Rebirth of American Third Parties.”

“I don’t think that very many people are going to make decisions for or against Kennedy based on abortion,” he said.

Kennedy’s lone campaign stop focused on abortion was an October visit to Auntie Angie’s House, a center for pregnant women in a Black community in Atlanta run by Stanton King. When Trump pardoned Stanton King, he cited her advocacy for people reentering society after being released from prison.

The interaction with Stanton King appeared to leave an impression on Kennedy, who has since repeated her inaccurate claim that Black women are systematically coerced into getting abortions at least three times. In a virtual discussion with Stanton King in February, Kennedy repeated that disinformation that Black women receive a vast majority of abortions and most abortion clinics are in Black communities.

Kennedy’s campaign says he “misspoke” when he referred to the percent of Black women receiving abortions, but neither of the claims he repeated is correct according to multiple research studies.

More than 6 in 10 abortion clinics were located in predominantly White neighborhoods and about 1 in 10 clinics were in predominantly Black neighborhoods, according to a 2014 report from the Guttmacher Institute, a research and advocacy group that favors abortion rights. The group told The Post that post-Roe abortion bans in states with large Black populations have likely led to fewer clinics in Black neighborhoods since that analysis was completed.

Stanton King told The Post she did not ask Kennedy during his visit when he believes life begins, whether he would sign an abortion ban or his thoughts on the abortion restrictions passed in neighboring states. But Stanton King came away with the belief that Kennedy could do a better job than the major party candidates in bridging the partisan divide, and she later joined his campaign as an advisor. She said she appreciated Kennedy’s promise to invest the same amount of federal resources that are committed to abortion services in social safety net programs for new mothers who need aid.

Many of Kennedy’s rare comments about abortion have come during media interviews, providing a patchy view of his policy and personal beliefs.

At the Iowa State Fair in August 2023, Kennedy said he would support a federal ban on abortion after 15 weeks of gestation, then said he would not “personally” restrict abortion but added, “I think the states have a right to protect a child once the child becomes viable, and that right, it increases.” (His campaign later clarified that he would not sign a ban.)

In an interview with PBS News in November, Kennedy said he didn’t know what Biden could do to help protect women’s access to abortions.

In a video released the same day as Biden’s State of the Union address, in which the president called for Congress to restore Roe, Kennedy didn’t mention abortion rights at all.

Biden’s allies have emphasized the president’s efforts to expand access to contraception, abortion medication and emergency abortion care and point out the stark contrast with Trump’s work to restrict abortion access. When Kerry Kennedy, Kennedy’s sister, endorsed Biden along with more than a dozen other members of her family at a campaign rally Thursday, she cited Biden’s support for abortion rights as one of the main reasons to back him.

Kennedy’s running mate, Nicole Shanahan, funded research into the longevity of women’s reproductive health and criticized in-vitro fertilization as “one of the biggest lies that’s being told about women’s health today.” In a lengthy post on X on April 9, after Arizona’s state Supreme Court decision, Shanahan wrote she “can hold both beliefs,” suggesting bans are “coercive” and “wrong” but that women should carry pregnancies to term unless the mother or baby’s health is at risk.

Most voters who have already said they plan to vote for Kennedy said he talks about abortion enough.

Mike Roy, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel in Annapolis, Md., said he is voting for Kennedy because he believes the independent can keep America out of other countries’ wars, close the Southern border and more aggressively regulate polluters. Abortion is not a top issue for the 46-year-old, but he agrees with Kennedy that women should have the right to choose the procedure. Still, he sees little point in Kennedy focusing on the topic.

“I don’t think he needs to talk about it more,” Roy said. “It’s such a polarizing issue and the theme of the campaign is to heal the divide.”

Lori Spencer, a Kennedy campaign volunteer in Oklahoma City who voted for the libertarian candidates in the last two presidential elections, disagrees. The 54-year-old was once a loyal Democratic voter but she left the party in 1996 after she felt like its leaders weren’t keeping their promises, arguing Democrats could have protected Roe when they had the chance. Biden is no different, she believes.

“He talks the talk, but he doesn’t walk the walk,” she said.

Spencer said Kennedy might benefit from talking about abortion rights more and appealing more to voters like her who believe the government should not be involved in medical decisions.

“I personally would like to see him be more vocal about his pro-choice beliefs,” Spencer said. “But he’ll talk about it when asked and he’ll give you a clear answer. I don’t think there’s any ambiguity or misunderstanding of his position. He’s very clear. So I’m happy enough with that.”

Kennedy’s campaign has also used his abortion position to appeal to conservative voters. Rita Palma, who worked for Kennedy gathering ballot access signatures in New York, told voters in this month that the candidate’s position was comparable to Trump’s. Palma was later fired after being caught on video saying Kennedy could help Trump win.

“Bobby believes and I heard this out of his own mouth: ‘Every abortion is a tragedy,’” she said in the video. “He’s definitely not, you know, 100% pro-life. But none of the candidates are. Even Trump is saying that they have to find that, quote-unquote sweet spot in order to win elections.” Palma declined to comment for this story.

Even Kennedy has acknowledged he doesn’t know what he would do on abortion once in the White House. When a Post reporter asked him in February how he would protect abortion access and reproductive rights if he were elected president, he replied: “I don’t know, you tell me. What should I be doing?”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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