Republican presidential candidates debate parental rights, sex changes for kids — By: Catholic News Agency

Republican presidential candidates (left to right) former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and Vivek Ramaswamy participate in the NewsNation Republican Presidential Primary Debate at the University of Alabama Moody Music Hall on Dec. 6, 2023, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. / Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Dec 7, 2023 / 13:20 pm (CNA).

Republican presidential candidates on Wednesday night traded jabs and argued about parental rights, sex changes for children, and a number of other issues in a primary debate marked by several heated moments.  

Four candidates took the stage in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in the debate hosted by NewsNation: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

The GOP frontrunner, former president Donald Trump, opted to skip the debate and hold a private fundraiser instead. 

Addressing the topic of transgender surgeries performed on children, each of the candidates agreed that minors should not receive such surgeries, though they differed on how the federal government should approach the issue. 

“Republicans believe in less government,” Christie said, not “more government involvement in people’s lives.”

“This is not something I favor,” Christie said of the surgeries. “I think it’s a very, very dangerous thing to do, but that’s my opinion as a parent … and I get to make the decisions about my children, not anybody else.” 

“[A]s a parent, you do not have the right to abuse your kids,” DeSantis said in response, which drew cheers from the crowd. “This is cutting off their genitals. This is mutilating these minors. These are irreversible procedures.” 

DeSantis noted that as governor of Florida, he signed legislation to ban transgender operations on minors. He also criticized Haley’s record on transgender issues, noting that she opposed a bill that would have prohibited males from entering female bathrooms while she was governor of South Carolina.

In response, Haley said the transgender issue has “exploded” over the past decade and that the debate was different in South Carolina when she was governor from 2011-2017. 

“When I was governor, 10 years ago, when the bathroom situation came up, we had maybe a handful of kids that were dealing with an issue,” she said. “And I said we don’t need to bring government into this, but boys go into boys’ bathrooms, girls go into girls’ bathrooms, and if anyone else has an issue they use a private bathroom.”

Ramaswamy argued that the federal government should compel states to set the minimum age for transgender surgery to 18 years old by tying the mandate to federal funds. He referenced former President Ronald Reagan’s use of this strategy to require states to raise the minimum drinking age to 21 by tying the mandate to highway funding.

“We can do the same thing when it comes to banning genital mutilation or chemical castration [for children],” Ramaswamy said, adding that transgenderism is “a mental health disorder.”

There were several heated moments in Wednesday’s debate, mostly involving foreign policy disputes between Ramaswamy and the other candidates. Ramaswamy, who is often critical of the United States’ involvement in foreign conflicts, challenged Haley to name the Ukrainian provinces that she wants the United States to help defend. 

“She has no idea what the hell the names of those provinces are that she wants to send our sons and daughters and our troops and our military equipment to go fight in,” Ramaswamy argued.

Christie, who favors U.S. backing of Ukraine’s military initiatives, stepped in to support Haley and had a tense exchange with Ramaswamy. 

“This is the fourth debate that you would be voted in the first 20 minutes as the most obnoxious blowhard in America, so shut up for a little while,” Christie said when Ramaswamy began to interrupt him. He accused Ramaswamy of “insult[ing] Nikki Haley’s basic intelligence, not her positions.” 

Ramaswamy responded by saying that Christie similarly does not know which Ukrainian provinces he wants the United States to defend.

“Chris, your version of foreign policy experience was closing a bridge from New Jersey to New York,” Ramaswamy said. “So do everybody a favor — just walk yourself off that stage, enjoy a nice meal, and get the hell out of this race.”

Later in the debate, Ramaswamy accused Haley of being corrupt and held up a notepad with the phrase “Nikki = corrupt” on it. When given the option to respond, Haley declined.

At one point Ramaswamy was asked about remarks he made in September that appeared to criticize Haley’s decision for most of her life to go by “Nikki” rather than her given first name “Nimarata.” Haley’s parents are both Sikhs.

DeSantis and Christie are Catholic, while Ramaswamy is Hindu and Haley is Methodist.

“Are you questioning Nikki Haley’s Christian convictions?” moderator Eliana Johnson asked Ramaswamy. 

“I don’t question her faith, but I question her authenticity,” Ramaswamy responded, going on to criticize Haley for what he said was her use of “identity politics” in her campaign.

Given a chance to rebut Ramaswamy’s remarks, Haley said: “It’s not worth my time to respond to him.”

Most primary polls show Trump leading his opponents by nearly 50 points. The former president is polling about 60% with DeSantis polling at less than 15% and Haley polling around 10%. Ramaswamy is polling around 5% and Christie is polling around 2.5%.

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