GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich (Pic by Gage Skidmore, via Wikimedia Commons)

The anti-abortion group Personhood USA hosted a presidential candidate forum last night in South Carolina, to discuss the legality of abortion, defunding Planned Parenthood and passing legislation to define human life as beginning at the moment of conception.

The event, which was broadcast via live webcast, drew GOP candidates Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry. Ron Paul appeared via satellite; Mitt Romney, due to a prior conflict, was unable to attend.

“We didn’t know until last night but, I did get a phone call from one of his state representatives that there was a conflict and he was unable to make it,” said Personhood USA co-founder Keith Mason, who noted that Romney also had a conflict that prevented him from attending a similar forum held in Iowa. But the group has plans for additional events — at least two to be held in Florida — and Mason said he was “looking forward to having [Romney] there so he can share his conviction.”

Personhood USA leasers have come out hard against Romney, specifically for his failure to sign an anti-abortion pledge penned by the organization. Romney’s credibility on abortion was brought up several times throughout last night’s event.

“Gov. Romney’s been on both sides of the issue of life,” Perry said, referencing Romney’s past pro-choice leanings. “It is clear to most of us that this was a choice for convenience. This was a decision that Gov. Romney made for a political convenience, not an issue of his heart.”

The candidates were questioned by a panel of anti-abortion activists, including Lila Rose, Georgia Right to Life President Danny Becker, and legal analyst Roberto Garcia Jones. And though many of the questions were identical, the candidates’ answers were not always so similar.

When asked when he believes life begins, Texas Gov. Perry answered, “I would suggest it starts at conception. I’m not a lawyer but I do have a substantial amount of common sense.” When pressed on his definition of “conception,” Perry chuckled. “When the sperm and the egg come together. … You got a different idea? I’m not a doctor either, but I did grow up on a farm.”

Gingrich’s answer didn’t elicit quite so many laughs from the crowd.

“We are fully human upon conception because all of the genetic patterns needed are in existence at that moment and therefore the rights should attach at that moment,” he said.

Paul used his appearance to espouse his libertarian views, saying, “Liberty can’t be protected if we don’t protect life itself.”

Another topic of interest was Planned Parenthood — defunding it.

Gingrich promised that, as president, he would defund Planned Parenthood “sometime early in 2013.” Perry, who proudly said his Legislature had the “courage” to shut down 12 abortion clinics in Texas, promised that, if he was sent a bill that included appropriations for abortion, “it will be vetoed.”

Santorum, arguably the most vocal candidate when it comes to abortion issues, used his reputation to distance himself from his opponents.

“I always say it’s one thing to check the box and say you’re for life. It’s another thing to go out, stick your head out of the foxhole and lead the charge,” said the former senator from Pennsylvania.

“I think we give up too much and others have in this campaign by saying they believe that life begins at conception,” said Santorum. “I don’t think life begins at conception. I know life begins at conception.”

Personhood USA has led the push to legally define life as beginning at the moment of conception, introducing measures across the country — most notably in Mississippi, where a personhood amendment failed on the state’s November 2011 ballot but might soon receive legislative support. In Florida, a Personhood affiliate is currently working on a plan to contact every church in the state between now and the end of the year, so that each church can present the group’s personhood petition to its parishioners in January 2013.

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