APPLETON, Wis. — Donald Trump sparked a firestorm Wednesday when he said there should be some form of punishment for women who have abortions if the procedure is outlawed in the United States — a position he walked back just hours later after he came under widespread criticism, including from the antiabortion movement.
In an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews set to air Wednesday night, the Republican presidential frontrunner repeatedly asserted he is “pro-life” and that abortion should be outlawed. But he was less clear when Matthews pressed him on exactly what the legal ramifications should be if a woman were to undergo the procedure if it were again made illegal.
“Should abortion be punished?” Matthews asked.
“Look, in certain parts of the Republican Party, conservative Republicans would say, ‘Yes, they should,’” Trump replied.
But when Matthews pushed him for his personal views, Trump struggled to answer.
“I would say it’s a very serious problem, and it’s a problem we have to decide on. Are you going to send them to jail?” Trump said.
Matthews then pressed Trump on how an abortion ban would work. “Well, you go back to a position like they had where they would perhaps go to illegal places, but we have to ban it,” the GOP frontrunner replied.
As to what the impact of such a ban would be, Trump responded, “There has to be some form of punishment.”
Donald Trump at a MSNBC town hall Wednesday in Green Bay, Wis. (Photo: Tom Lynn/Getty Images)
He indicated the punishment would be for the woman, but repeatedly said he didn’t know what the penalty should be. “I don’t know. That I don’t know,” Trump said, adding it “would have to be determined.”
When Matthews pointed out that he’d taken clearer positions on other issues, Trump conceded he had. “I do take positions on everything else, but it’s a very complicated position,” he admitted.
But Trump walked back his comments in a statement issued a few hours later. “If Congress were to pass legislation making abortion illegal and the federal courts upheld this legislation, or any state were permitted to ban abortion under state and federal law, the doctor or any other person performing this illegal act upon a woman would be held legally responsible, not the woman,” Trump said in a statement issued by his campaign. “The woman is a victim in this case, as is the life in her womb.”
Trump, who was in the odd position of issuing a correction for a television taping that had not yet aired, also added: “My position has not changed — like Ronald Reagan, I am pro-life with exceptions.”
Trump’s initial comments immediately attracted criticism from across the political spectrum, including from GOP rivals Ted Cruz and John Kasich, and from Democrat Hillary Clinton, who retweeted Trump’s comments with the comment, “Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse.”
Even a top official with the March for Life condemned the GOP frontrunner, calling him “completely out of touch with the pro-life movement.”
“Being pro-life means wanting what is best for the mother and the baby,” Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life Education and Defense Fund, said in a statement. “No pro-lifer would ever want to punish a woman who has chosen abortion. This is against the very nature of what we are about.”
Trump’s flip-flop came as his campaign is struggling to defend himself on women’s issues ahead of next week’s Wisconsin primary. That includes his defense of his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, who has been charged with simple battery for grabbing Michelle Fields, a former Breitbart News reporter, during a campaign event earlier this month in Florida.
Asked about the charge by Matthews, Trump repeatedly mocked Fields, suggesting she had exaggerated the incident. “I don’t have great respect for her,” Trump said. “I think for her to do what she did to this man over what he did is outrageous, is outrageous.”
But he also admitted the scandal had been a distraction for the campaign and was hurting him with women. The real estate mogul’s approval ratings have been low with women generally, but polls in recent days have found his numbers falling even further. A recent CNN poll released March 24 found 73 percent of women have an unfavorable view of Trump, while a March 17 Reuters poll found 50 percent of women have a “very unfavorable” view.
In Wisconsin, Ted Cruz, who has faced his own struggles with female voters, is now surging in the polls ahead of next week’s primary — in part because of support from women. A Marquette Law School poll found Cruz leading Trump among likely women voters 39 percent to 24 percent.
“The numbers aren’t good,” Trump acknowledged in the MSNBC interview. “The numbers aren’t as good with women as they were. But nobody respects women more than I do.”