Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump walked back his statement that there would “have to be some form of punishment” for women who have abortions if the procedure were outlawed in the U.S.
The comment, which immediately riled abortion-rights supporters, came during a week where Trump is fighting to defend himself on women’s issues on multiple fronts ahead of a key primary in Wisconsin, and led him to issue two clarifications on Wednesday afternoon.
“This issue is unclear and should be put back into the states for determination,” Trump said in the first statement. “Like Ronald Reagan, I am pro-life with exceptions, which I have outlined numerous times.”
As his initial remarks continued to draw scrutiny, Trump issued a second statement saying: “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. The woman is a victim in this case as is the life in her womb. My position has not changed—like Ronald Reagan, I am pro-life with exceptions.”
Trump made the original “punishment” comments at a taping of an MSNBC town hall to be aired Wednesday evening. Host Chris Matthews pressed Trump on his anti-abortion position, repeatedly asking him whether abortion should be punished if it is outlawed. “This is not something you can dodge,” Matthews said.
“Look, people in certain parts of the Republican Party, conservative Republicans, would say, ‘Yes, it should,’” Trump answered.
“How about you?” Matthews asked.
“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.
“I’m asking you,” Matthews said.
“I am pro-life,” Trump said. Asked how a ban would actually work, Trump said, “Well, you go back to a position like they had where they would perhaps go to illegal places but we have to ban it,” Trump said.
Matthews then pressed Trump on whether he believes there should be punishment for abortion if it were illegal.
“There has to be some form of punishment,” Trump said. “For the woman?” Matthews asked. “Yeah,” Trump said, nodding.
Trump said the punishment would “have to be determined.”
Trump said the stakes of the general election are high because of the vacancy on the Supreme Court left by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February. President Barack Obama has nominated a replacement whom Senate Republicans say they won’t consider because of the impending national vote.
“They’ve set the law and frankly the judges, you’re going to have a very big election coming up for that reason because you have judges where it’s a real tipping point and with the loss of Scalia, who was a very strong conservative, this presidential election is going to be very important,” Trump said.
“When you say what’s the law, nobody knows what the law is going to be. It depends on who gets elected,” Trump said.
Fight vs. Cruz
Texas Senator Ted Cruz blasted Trump’s remarks.
“Once again Donald Trump has demonstrated that he hasn’t seriously thought through the issues, and he’ll say anything just to get attention,” Cruz said in a statement. “On the important issue of the sanctity of life, what’s far too often neglected is that being pro-life is not simply about the unborn child; it’s also about the mother—and creating a culture that respects her and embraces life. Of course we shouldn’t be talking about punishing women; we should affirm their dignity and the incredible gift they have to bring life into the world.”
Cruz has repeatedly attacked the billionaire over his “evolution” on the abortion issue. In an October 1999 interview on NBC's Meet the Press, Trump said he was “very pro-choice.”
“I hate the concept of abortion. I hate it, I hate everything it stands for. I cringe when I hear people debating the subject,” Trump said in 1999. “But you still—I just believe in choice. And again, it may be a little bit of a New York background, because there is some different attitude in different parts of the country, and I was raised in New York, grew up and worked and everything else in New York City. But I am strongly for choice, and yet I hate the concept of abortion.”
After joining the race for president, Trump said he had “evolved” on the issue. At the first Republican presidential debate in August, Trump sought to clarify his 1999 remarks to Russert.
“If you look at the question, I was in business. They asked me a question as to pro-life or choice,” Trump said. “And then since then, I've very much evolved. And what happened is friends of mine years ago were going to have a child, and it was going to be aborted. And it wasn't aborted. And that child today is a total superstar, a great, great child. And I saw that. And I saw other instances. And I am very, very proud to say that I am pro-life.”
One of his earliest such public declarations was in 2011, during a speech at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). “I am pro-life,” he said.
On the campaign trail, Cruz has also attacked Trump for having “New York values” and for supporting federal funding for Planned Parenthood for women's health services other than abortions.
In recent days, Cruz and Trump have fought an escalating battle over their wives, with Trump accusing his competitor of having ties to a group that ran an ad with a provocative photo of Trump’s wife, Melania. Cruz denied involvement. After Trump threatened to “spill the beans” on Cruz’s own wife, Heidi, Cruz began to back away from his pledge last year to support whoever becomes the Republican nominee. On Tuesday, Cruz said he’s “not in the habit of supporting someone who attacks my wife and my family.”
Further igniting the race, Trump’s campaign manager was charged on Tuesday with misdemeanor battery for grabbing a female reporter’s arm at a news conference earlier this month. The campaign says the aide, Corey Lewandowski, is innocent, and Trump has sought to cast doubt on the reporter’s account of the incident, arguing that she was interfering with Secret Service.
Cruz leads Trump 40 percent to 30 percent among likely Republican primary voters in Wisconsin, according to a Marquette Law School poll released Wednesday. The vote is April 5. Trump leads the delegate count and is seeking to win a majority of delegates ahead of the party’s national gathering in July in order to avoid a contested convention.
Trump’s comments drew a swift rebuke from Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton. “Just when you thought it couldn't get worse. Horrific and telling,” she said on Twitter, signing the message with an “H” to signify the message was from the candidate personally.
Helen Patenaude, a retiree from Oconto who attended the taping on Wednesday, said she is supporting Trump because “he tells it like it is.” “He's not a politician,” she said. But she said she was “confused” and “didn't really understand” what Trump meant during his exchange with Matthews on abortion.
Several anti-abortion groups criticized Trump’s comments. “No pro-lifer would ever want to punish a woman who has chosen abortion,” said a statement from Jeanne Mancini, president of March for Life, which organizes the largest annual anti-abortion march annually in Washington. “This is against the very nature of what we are about. We invite a woman who has gone down this route to consider paths of healing, not punishment.”
Town hall attendee Lidia Nonn of Green Bay, who said she is pro-life but thinks abortion should be legal, said Trump “should've thought the answer out more carefully.”
“If a woman decides she has to have an abortion, he should've realized that her anguish spiritually, emotionally, mentally and physically is punishment enough,” said Nonn. “It's her right.”