GREEN BAY, Wisc. (Christian Examiner) – Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump caused a stir among abortion rights and pro-life groups alike when he said during an MSNBC townhall with host Chris Matthews that women should suffer "some form of punishment" for abortion if the law changed to become more restrictive than Roe v. Wade.
Trump, who said he was "very pro-choice" in a 1999 NBC interview, has shifted his position and now claims abortion is "a very serious problem and it's a problem we have to decide on."
"Are you going to send them to jail? There has to be some form of punishment," Trump said to a visibly shocked Matthews.
"For the woman?" Matthews asked.
"Yeah," Trump responded, but he added the punishment would "have to be determined." He then gave a rambling response, perhaps already realizing that he had taken on a position not even the strongest pro-life advocates hold.
"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."
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who is leading Trump in several Wisconsin polls and gaining on the candidate nationally, quickly responded to the comment. In a written statement, Cruz said:
"Once again Donald Trump has demonstrated that he hasn't seriously thought through the issues, and he'll say anything just to get attention. 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."
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The president of the March for Life Education and Defense Fund, a leading pro-life organization, also criticized Trump's stance, calling it "completely out of touch with the pro-life movement and even more with women who have chosen such a sad thing as abortion."
"Being pro-life means wanting what is best for the mother and the baby. Women who choose abortion often do so in desperation and then deeply regret such a decision. 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. We invite a woman who has gone down this route to consider paths to healing, not punishment," Jeanne Mancini, the organization's president, said.
Ironically, the criticism from the most conservative Republican candidate in the race and pro-life advocates was matched by criticism from both Planned Parenthood and NARAL, the nation's leading abortion rights advocate.
Planned Parenthood issued a short statement on its Facebook page calling the candidate "flat out dangerous."
"He would criminalize the one in three women who will have a safe and legal abortion in her lifetime," the statement said.
Stronger criticism came from Ilyse Hogue, president of the National Abortion Rights Action League or NARAL Pro-Choice America. She called the remarks "dangerous" also, but said also said the candidate's position was "unhinged" and "far from where the American people are."
Hogue also said Trump's position would force women to seek "back alley" abortions.
"The worldview Donald Trump promotes is one where women should be shamed and blamed for their decisions," she said. "People believe that women deserve compassion and support when we make decisions about our lives, not punished by a self-appointed dictator over our choices."
The response from both pro-life advocates and abortion rights groups led Trump to perform a quick about face. Within three hours of the interview with Matthews, Trump issued a statement clarifying his position. According to the candidate, he was speaking hypothetically about a situation that might occur if abortion laws were changed. He also changed the target for punishment, shifting the focus away from women.
"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."