By PHILIP ELLIOTT
NASHUA, N.H. (AP) – Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a newly declared Republican presidential candidate, is dodging a central question about abortion: What exceptions, if any, should be made if the procedure were to be banned?
In an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday, Paul would not say if his opposition to abortion rights includes an exception in cases of rape, incest or risk to the life of the mother.
“The thing is about abortion – and about a lot of things – is that I think people get tied up in all these details of, sort of, you’re this or this or that, or you’re hard and fast (on) one thing or the other,” Paul said.
In the past, Paul has supported legislation that would ban abortion with exceptions, while at other times, he’s backed bills seeking a broader bar on abortion.
Campaigning in New Hampshire, Paul told the AP that it’s his conviction that “life is special and deserves protection.”
Paul entered the GOP race Tuesday and is this week campaigning in the first four states to vote in the nomination contest.
Exceptions in any abortion ban are a politically sensitive topic for Paul and some of his rivals. They want to nudge the party away from a focus on such social issues, but they know that winning the nomination requires some backing from religious conservatives who press for strict if not absolute limits on abortion.
In Iowa, where Paul will campaign Friday, Rev. Terry Amann of Walnut Creek Community Church near Des Moines said he saw no place for equivocation.
“I’m interested in finding a presidential candidate who is ready to die on the hill of pro-life,” said Amann, whose endorsement is sought by presidential candidates in the state’s opening caucuses. “No exceptions. No ambiguity.”
Paul has said previously the issue is too divisive to expect changes in federal abortion law. That has led some religious conservatives to raise questions about his commitment to their cause despite a voting record in their favor.
Paul grew testy when pressed in the interview on the question of exceptions. “I gave you about a five-minute answer. Put in my five-minute answer,” he said.
Later in the day, when asked after a campaign stop in Milford about the interview, which the Democratic National Committee had sent reporters, Paul said, “Why don’t we ask the DNC: Is it OK to kill a 7-pound baby in the uterus?”
“You go back and go ask (DNC head) Debbie Wasserman Schultz if she’s OK with killing a 7-pound baby that’s just not born yet,” Paul said. “Ask her when life begins, and ask Debbie when she’s willing to protect life. When you get an answer from Debbie, come back to me.”
In response, Wasserman Schultz said, “I support letting women and their doctors make this decision without government getting involved. Period. End of story.”
In the AP interview, Paul said his test is whether abortion legislation protects life.
“I think the most important thing is the general concept of: Do you support the sanctity of life? Do you think there’s something special about life? So you think when we’re born that a human baby is different than an animal, that there’s something special that is imbued into human life? And I think there is.”
He added: “I’ve supported both bills with and without (exceptions), you know. In general, I am pro-life. So I will support legislation that advances and shows that life is special and deserves protection.”
Abortion policy is a central issue in Republican politics. On Tuesday, Kansas became the first state to ban a common second-trimester abortion procedure that critics describe as dismembering a fetus.
The measure approved by the state’s GOP-led Legislature and signed by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback was drafted by the National Right to Life Committee. It has been introduced in a few others states, including South Carolina, which votes third in the presidential primary season. Paul planned to campaign there Thursday.
Lisa Van Riper, president of South Carolina Citizens for Life, said what matters most is that Paul’s abortion record is better than Democrats, including likely presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“He’s willing to move the ball toward the preservation of as much life as he can,” she said. “The Democratic platform is willing to move the line further and further toward having no protection for intrauterine life at all.”
Polls show that a vast majority of Americans believe abortion should be legal in cases of rape and incest and to protect the life of the mother. Support for exceptions has not been disqualifying in recent Republican presidential primaries.
GOP nominees Mitt Romney in 2012, John McCain in 2008 and George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 each had caveats in opposing abortion rights.
An eye surgeon by training, Paul said he often examines newborns, some as light as a pound, in neonatal nurseries. Yet a fetus, even weighing more in the womb than a premature baby, is considered to have lesser or no legal rights, he said.
“Nobody really, sort of, questions whether they have rights,” Paul said. “They’re there, and if you do something to the baby or try to harm a baby in the neonatal nursery, that’s murder. Because everyone is in agreement that the baby is alive.”
Associated Press writers Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, and Bill Barrow in Atlanta contributed to this report.
Follow Philip Elliott on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/philip_elliott
Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.