Abortions should be made illegal and women who get them should receive “some form of punishment,” Republican front-runner Donald Trump said Wednesday, without indicating specifically what the punishment should be.
The comments came in a heated exchange with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews during the taping of a town hall in Wisconsin, which holds its primary next week.
“There has to be some form of punishment,” Trump told Matthews in the exchange over whether abortion should be banned. The subject remains highly controversial decades after the Supreme Court legalized it.
Pressed by Matthews on the nature of that punishment, Trump responded: “I haven’t determined what the punishment should be.” He also suggested that women could continue to receive abortions, but at “illegal places.”
Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton quickly responded on Twitter, noting Trump’s comments and adding, “Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse. Horrific and telling.”
Trump has often said he’s opposed to abortions except in the case of three exceptions: rape, incest and when the life of the mother is at risk. He used to describe himself as in favor of abortion rights, but says his stance has evolved over the years.
Trump’s remarks were assailed by abortion-rights supporters, but they also unsettled anti-abortion activists who said the comments clash with efforts to show empathy with women contemplating whether to have the procedure.
“We have never advocated, in any context, for the punishment of women who undergo abortion,” Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the national anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List, said in a statement.
“As a convert to the pro-life movement, Mr. Trump sees the reality of the horror of abortion — the destruction of an innocent human life,” Dannenfelser said. “But let us be clear: punishment is solely for the abortionist who profits off of the destruction of one life and the grave wounding of another.”
The March for Life, which organizes anti-abortion events each January in Washington, said on Twitter: “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.”
Asked to clarify his position, Trump’s campaign initially issued a statement saying he believes the issue should rest with state governments.
But as the condemnation from all sides mounted, Trump’s campaign issued a second statement that rejected his idea that a woman should face repercussions for undergoing an illegal abortion.
“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. “The woman is a victim in this case as is the life in her womb.”
Even before Trump’s comments, recent polls have put his negative ratings nearing or even eclipsing 70 percent among women.
The New York billionaire arrived in Wisconsin fending off another controversy. His campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, was charged with misdemeanor battery in Florida on Tuesday over an altercation with a female reporter earlier this month.
Wisconsin’s April 5 primary looks pivotal in the Republican race. If Texas Sen. Ted Cruz wins, it would narrow Trump’s already tight path to the nomination and raise the prospect of a contested party convention. Delegates there might turn to other candidates if the billionaire fails to win on the first ballot.
Trump heads into Wisconsin with 739 delegates to Cruz’s 465. Kasich lags behind with 143. Wisconsin has 42 Republican delegates, with 18 going to the statewide winner and 24 divided among the winners in each of the state’s eight congressional districts
Trump would need 1,237 delegates by the end of the primary season to capture the nomination and avoid a contested convention.
All three Republican candidates now say they aren’t committing to supporting whomever the party chooses as its nominee for the November election.
Trump on Tuesday said he was rescinding his promise because “I have been treated very unfairly,” and he listed the party establishment among those he believes have wronged him.
Cruz said if Trump were the nominee, that would hand the election to Clinton.
Based on primaries and caucuses to date, Clinton has 1,243 delegates to rival Bernie Sanders’ 975. Including superdelegates, party leaders who are free to support any candidate, Clinton has 1,712 delegates to Sanders’ 1,004, leaving her shy of the 2,383 it takes to win the nomination.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.