Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said Sunday that he supported a federal ban on abortion after the first trimester of pregnancy, then quickly backtracked — underscoring both his ideologically uncomfortable position within the Democratic primary field and the deep salience of abortion in next year’s election.
Mr. Kennedy, who is running against President Biden, made his comments at the Iowa State Fair after an NBC News reporter asked whether he would sign a bill codifying the right to abortion once protected by Roe v. Wade. Democrats have rallied around such legislation since the Supreme Court overturned Roe last year, though the party does not currently have the votes in Congress to pass it.
“I believe a decision to abort a child should be up to the woman during the first three months of life,” Mr. Kennedy said.
In response to follow-up questions, Mr. Kennedy confirmed that he would sign federal restrictions after three months, which some Republicans have proposed and elected Democrats almost universally oppose. While the vast majority of abortions take place in that first-trimester window, Roe protected abortion rights until viability — the point when a fetus can survive outside the womb — which is around the end of the second trimester.
Hours later, Mr. Kennedy’s campaign released a statement saying he had “misunderstood a question posed to him by an NBC reporter in a crowded, noisy exhibit hall at the Iowa State Fair.”
“Mr. Kennedy’s position on abortion is that it is always the woman’s right to choose,” the statement said. “He does not support legislation banning abortion.”
But the video of his comments and the back-and-forth that followed show Mr. Kennedy specifying the first three months of pregnancy in his own words, and the reporter asking several follow-up questions to confirm his position.
“So you would cap it at 15 weeks?” the reporter asked.
“Yes,” Mr. Kennedy said.
“Or 21 weeks?”
“Yes, three months,” he said.
“So three months, you would sign a federal cap on that,” the reporter said.
“Yes, I would,” Mr. Kennedy said.
A spokeswoman for his campaign did not respond to questions on Monday.
While there was no ambiguity in Mr. Kennedy’s declaration of support for a ban after three months, there were indications that he did not understand the timeline of pregnancy.
By way of explaining his position, he said, “Once a child is viable outside the womb, I think then the state has an interest in protecting that child.” But viability, which can vary from pregnancy to pregnancy, is generally around 24 weeks, or six months.
Mr. Kennedy, a scion of the storied American political family and an environmental lawyer, has become known for his anti-vaccine advocacy and his promotion of conspiracy theories. While he is running for president as a Democrat, some of his positions are more in line with Republicans.