Donald Trump said Wednesday that women who seek abortions should be subject to “some form of punishment” if the procedure is banned in the United States, further elevating Republican concerns that his explosive remarks about women could doom the party in the fall.
The comment, which Trump later recanted, attracted instant, bipartisan criticism — the latest in a series of high-profile episodes that have shined a light on Trump’s feeble approval ratings among women nationally.
In this case, Trump also ran afoul of conservative doctrine, with opponents of abortion rights immediately castigating him for suggesting that those who receive abortions — and not merely those who perform them — should be punished if the practice is outlawed.
The statement came as Trump appeared at a town-hall-style forum with Chris Matthews of MSNBC, recorded for broadcast Wednesday night. Matthews pressed Trump — who once supported abortion rights — on his calls to ban the procedure, asking how he might enforce such a restriction.
“You go back to a position like they had where they would perhaps go to illegal places,” Trump said, after initially deflecting questions. “But you have to ban it.”
He added, after a bit more prodding, “There has to be some form of punishment.”
Hours later, Trump recanted his remarks, essentially in full, a rare and remarkable shift for a candidate who proudly extols his unwillingness to apologize or bow to “political correctness.”
If abortion were disallowed, he said in a statement, “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,” he continued.
Trump’s Republican rivals moved quickly to distance themselves from his initial comments as well. Gov. John Kasich of Ohio said, “Of course women shouldn’t be punished.”
“I don’t think that’s an appropriate response,” he told MSNBC. “It’s a difficult enough situation.”
The campaign of Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said attention should be focused on providers of abortion, not the women who receive them.
“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, adding, “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.”
For Republicans, the chaos felt something like a recurring nightmare. After the defeat of Mitt Romney in 2012, party leaders had hoped to move beyond a reputation for offensive comments on women’s issues, emblematized by Todd Akin, a Senate candidate in Missouri who posited that victims of “legitimate rape” were somehow able to prevent pregnancy.
Trump’s comments came as many Republicans are confronting, with escalating despair, the specter of a Trump nomination — and the electoral difficulties he would face.
Last week, Trump threatened to “spill the beans” on Cruz’s wife, Heidi, and posted an unflattering picture of her on Twitter. On Tuesday, he forcefully defended his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, who was charged with battery over allegations that he grabbed a female reporter who had tried to question Trump earlier this month.
A New York Times/CBS News poll this month had already demonstrated Trump’s weakness with female voters, who favored the Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton, 55 percent to 35 percent.
On Wednesday, Clinton called Trump’s comments “horrific and telling.”
Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, sought to tie Trump to the rest of his party, noting that Cruz opposed exceptions for abortion in cases of rape or incest. Kasich, she added, has moved to defund Planned Parenthood in Ohio.
“All three Republicans would drag the country back to the days when women were forced to seek illegal procedures from unlicensed providers out of sheer desperation,” she said.
Yet with his statement Wednesday, and the scramble to clarify it, Trump also exacerbated concerns among Republicans who have questioned the authenticity of his late-in-life conversions to conservative social positions.
Trump is already facing a difficult test in Wisconsin, where the Republican primary will take place Tuesday, and where those looking to stop his march to the nomination see a critical opportunity. A Marquette University Law School poll released just before the MSNBC interview showed Cruz in first place in the state, leading Trump by 10 points.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who is popular with Republicans, has taken a hard line against abortions. Last year, he signed a bill banning abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, just as he was gearing up to run for president. He bowed out of the race last September after failing to gain traction, and this week endorsed Cruz.
Cruz has long attacked Trump for supporting abortion rights in the past, highlighting clips from a 1999 interview in which Trump called himself “very pro-choice” and condemning his positive comments about Planned Parenthood at a debate last month.
Trump said the group did “wonderful things” for women’s health, even as he criticized its abortion services.
There does not appear to be any record of Trump’s shift on abortion rights before February 2011, the month he spoke at a conservative conclave and made clear he was considering running for president the following year.
Bruce Haynes, a Republican strategist, said he could not recall “any credible corner of the movement” calling for criminal sanctions against women who sought abortions.
Jeanne Mancini, the president of the March for Life Education and Defense Fund, said efforts to punish individual women were “completely out of touch with the pro-life movement.”
“No pro-lifer would ever want to punish a woman who has chosen abortion,” she said. “We invite a woman who has gone down this route to consider paths to healing, not punishment.”
Others worried that Trump had helped fulfill a stereotype of the anti-abortion movement.
“He doesn’t understand pro-life people or the life issue,” said Penny Nance, the head of the conservative group Concerned Women for America and a supporter of Cruz. “He instead became the caricature that the left tries to paint us to be.”
In Trump’s struggles, his Republican opponents seem to have sensed an opportunity. Even before the latest controversy, Cruz and Kasich had invoked their daughters while discussing Trump’s treatment of women.
Earlier Wednesday, Cruz appeared in Madison, Wisconsin, to introduce a “Women for Cruz” coalition. He was joined by his wife, Heidi; his mother, Eleanor Darragh, who is seldom seen on the campaign trail; and Carly Fiorina, a high-profile supporter.
For much of the event, Cruz sat quietly behind a modest floral arrangement, allowing the women to speak on his behalf during a forum that seemed aimed at a rival whose name was scarcely mentioned.
“I just wanted to say one thing about Ted,” Heidi Cruz said near the end. “I want all of the women here in Wisconsin and across this country to know how supportive Ted has always been of all the women in his life.”
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