Donald Trump quickly walked back comments on Wednesday afternoon in which he had said he favored ‘some form of punishment’ for American women who terminate their pregnancies through abortion.
The billionaire Republican front-runner made that declaration during a noontime town hall TV taping in Wisconsin. Less than four hours later, however, he insisted that he would only hope to see abortion-clinic doctors and other medical personnel prosecuted.
‘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 to the press.
‘The woman is a victim in this case as is the life in her womb. My position has not changed.’
But hours earlier, when MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews asked him if he would advocate for legal penalties ‘for the woman’ who chooses an abortion, Trump had answered: ‘Yes.’
That comment came during a pre-taped town hall broadcast that wasn’t scheduled to air until hours after Trump’s about-face nullified it.
In the intervening hours, while he steered clear of the issue during a campaign appearance in the town of Appleton, Trump’s campaign released a statement saying the abortion issue ‘is unclear and should be put back into the states for determination.’
Framing abortion as an issue ripe for a return to state-based jurisdiction is political code for overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark supreme Court decision that forbade states from outlawing the artificial termination of pregnancies.
The move initially signaled that Trump was making a serious bid to undercut Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who has cornered the voting market on much of the nation’s social conservative base.
A Marquette University poll released Wednesday afternoon shows Trump trailing Cruz by 10 points in the Badger State, which will hold its primary election next Tuesday.
‘Once again Donald Trump has demonstrated that he hasn’t seriously thought through the issues, and he’ll say anything just to get attention,’ the tea party firebrand said.
‘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,’ Cruz said. ‘[W]e should affirm their dignity and the incredible gift they have to bring life into the world.’
In the rubble of a quickly abandoned policy position – executing a 180-degree turn on it before it airs on national television – the net effect was rank confusion.
‘I can’t speculate about what he was thinking,’ Trump spokeswoman Tana Goertz told CNN form the Appleton ballroom where Trump had just wrapped up his remarks.
She speculated that her boss may have meant women who choose abortions should undergo some form of ‘social punishment’ or ‘mental anguish,’ not a judicial punishment.
But the ground where Trump landed – prosecuting abortionists and comforting women – matches that of the national pro-life group Susan B. Anthony List, whose president had presaged Trump’s turnaround an hour earlier.
Abortion, said Marjorie Dannenfelser, is a form of exploitation of women, not something for which they should be held responsible.
‘We have never advocated, in any context, for the punishment of women who undergo abortion,’ Dannenfelser said.
‘Punishment is solely for the abortionist who profits off of the destruction of one life and the grave wounding of another.’
Matthews had cornered the billionaire on the third-rail political issue during the noontime taping in Green Bay.
‘Should abortion be punished? This is not something you can dodge,’ Matthews asked.
‘If you say “Abortion is a crime” or “abortion is murder,” you have to deal with it under the law. Should abortion be punished?’
Trump replied that ‘people in certain parts of the Republican Party, and conservative Republicans, would say, “Yes, they should be punished”.’
Asked for his personal view, Trump called abortion ‘a very serious problem, and it’s a problem we have to decide on. It’s very hard.’
‘But you’re for banning it,’ Matthews interjected.
Trump engaged him: ‘Are you going to say – well wait, are you going to say put them in jail? Is that the punishment you’re talking about?’
‘No, I’m asking you because you say you want to ban it. What does that mean?’ Matthews pressed.
Trump ultimately said ‘there has to be some form of punishment,’ for women who have abortions if the practice were to be outlawed.
‘For the woman?’ Matthews asked.
‘Yes,’ Trump answered, nodding, saying the penalty would ‘have to be determined.’
‘I don’t know. That I don’t know,’ he said.
‘Well why not?’ Matthews insisted. ‘You take positions on everything else!’
‘I do take positions on everything else but this is a very complicated position,’ the candidate said.
Trump has broadly proclaimed his pro-life position during the presidential campaign, after years of toeing a pro-choice line.
Matthews asked him how he would go about banning abortions.
‘You go back to a position like they had,’ he replied, ‘where they would perhaps go to illegal places, but we have to ban it.’
Matthews, an NBC News legend and a Roman Catholic, found himself on defense when Trump needled him about his Christian denomination’s teachings.
The Catholic Church staunchly opposes abortion, but does not call for civilian penalties for woman who stray.
Matthews responded that he accepts ‘the teaching authority of my church on moral issues’ and ‘I concur with their moral position.’
‘But legally I want to get to the question,’ he shifted, drawing a chuckle from Trump.
‘It’s not funny,’ Matthews said, according to an MSNBC transcript.
‘It’s really not funny,’ Trump countered. ‘What do you say about your church? They’re very, very strict.’
‘The church make their moral judgments, but you’re running for President of the United States,’ the host countered.
The billionaire real estate guru’s political line in the abortion sand could jeopardize his already-tenuous standing with Republican women.
And Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton pounced on the story, tweeting her disgust in a message signed with ‘–H,’ meaning that she wrote it personally.
‘Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse,’ Clinton tweeted. ‘Horrific and telling.’
Her rival Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist Vermont senator, tweeted: ‘Your Republican frontrunner, ladies and gentlemen. Shameful.’
Trump framed the decades-long U.S. abortion fight on Wednesday as a crucial matter for voters to decide through the ballot box, since the next president will determine the political balance of the U.S. Supreme Court.
‘They’ve set the law and, frankly, the judges,’ he said.
‘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,’ he said.
‘When you say “What’s the law?” nobody knows what the law is going to be. It depends on who gets elected.’
Trump announced his conservative transformation on abortion rights last August, saying that Planned Parenthood, the nation’s most active abortion clinic organization, should be de-funded at the federal government level.
This article originally appeared on the Daily Mail.