Trump's Abortion Remarks Will Infuriate All Sides

Donald Trump reacts during a news conference in Washington, D.C., on March 21. Jim Bourg/Reuters

When Donald Trump agreed on Wednesday that women should face "some sort of punishment" for having an abortion, he stepped into one of the most incendiary, combustible areas of American life, and one that is likely to infuriate all sides in the abortion movement.

The Republican front-runner was being interviewed by MSNBC's Chris Matthews for a town hall that will air on Wednesday night. Matthews asked if women who have abortions should be punished. At first, Trump seemed to dodge the question. "The answer is there has to be some form of punishment," he allowed, although it wasn't clear if he was referring to punitive actions against doctors and other medical staff performing an abortion or women receiving one.

But Matthews pressed further. "For the woman?" he asked. "Yes," Trump replied. Matthews asked if the punishment should be "10 cents or 10 years?" Trump didn't offer an answer.

Trump's comments are a huge deal for a number of reasons. First, they're the first in what's likely to be many attempts by pundits and debate moderators to get Trump to clarify his position on abortion itself. Trump has said in the past that he changed his mind on the subject; he used to be "pro-choice" but now he's "pro-life." But what exactly does that mean? Does Trump favor laws like the one in Texas that forces abortion clinics to meet requirements about the size of hallways or the hospital privileges of its doctors? (Legal-abortion advocates say these provision are just smokescreens to ban the procedure entirely.) As the Republican field continues to narrow, Trump is going to have to weigh in on these kinds of specific measures—or at least avoid questions about them.

By raising the prospect that women should face legal action for having abortions, Trump also finds himself at odds with the thrust of the right-to-life movement of the last 40-plus years, which has focused on abortion providers. It's a maxim in pro-life circles that women are victims of abortion, not criminals.

"It's something we've always worked really hard to be clear about: The penalties should be with doctors and not women," says Charmaine Yoest, until recently the president and chief executive of Americans United for Life. "It's a business and [abortion providers] prey on women in pain. Women are harmed in that transaction."

That view was encapsulated by former Arkansas governor and onetime presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee, who last year declared in a radio interview: "Well I would like to believe that rather than her thinking that was her only option, she would not allow herself to be victimized by an industry that has exploited women for 42 years, and made a lot of money off of them."

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops also views women contemplating or having abortions as victims, not criminals: "Those who resort to abortion out of a sense of desperation often find the cruel reality of abortion too difficult to bear," the group said in a 2002 statement. "But it is too difficult only in a world without God and therefore without hope. We must reach these hearts and give them hope. These are the converted hearts that will at last bring an end to abortion."

Trump's comments on Wednesday infuriated fellow candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, who called them "shameful," as well as pro-choice groups. Ohio Governor John Kasich, who opposes legal abortions with few exceptions, also denounced Trump's remarks. "Of course women shouldn't be punished," he told NBC's Chuck Todd.

Finally, all of this comes at a time when Trump has offered a full-throated defense of his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, who was arrested in Florida this week for assaulting a female reporter. Trump and Lewandowski have vigorously denied the charge, but it doesn't do any favors for a candidate that continues to see a gender gap in his supporters. On Wednesday, more than a dozen female conservative journalists called on Trump to dump Lewandowski.

In the election cycle to date, Trump has defied countless predictions that he's gone too far—whether it was calling for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the U.S. or criticizing Sen. John McCain's service during the Vietnam War. So will the hypothetical jailing of women who received abortions derail the Donald? Probably not. But it's telling that his campaign issued a semi-retraction on Wednesday, saying Trump actually favors letting states decide abortion policy and citing Ronald Reagan. Seems even Trump knows this is difficult terrain.