For months, the major concern the anti-abortion movement had with Donald Trump was that he was too wobbly on the issue. But on Wednesday, Trump staked out an abortion position so extreme that he blew up years of abortion foes’ careful messaging.
Trump’s remark at an MSNBC town hall that an abortion ban should carry a punishment for women who seek out the procedure sent anti-abortion activists immediately scrambling to correct the damage.
“Mr. Trump’s comment today is completely out of touch with the pro-life movement and even more with women who have chosen such a sad thing as abortion,” Jeanne Mancini, the president of March for Life Education and Defense Fund, said in a statement rushed out about an hour after Trump’s remarks were first broadcast. “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.”
The controversy began when MSNBC’s Chris Matthews pressed Trump on whether seeking an abortion should be treated as a crime.
“Well, people in certain parts of the Republican Party and conservative Republicans would say yes, they should be punished,” Trump said.
After some failed attempts to pivot to Matthews’ own views on abortion, Trump handed Democratic opposition research shops footage for the kind of campaign ad they could only dream of cutting.
“The answer is, there has to be some form of punishment” for the woman, Trump told Matthews.
Trump has tried twice now to walk back that statement. But for conservatives, the fallout from Trump’s comments could be greater than simply another strike against the real estate mogul’s odds of winning the White House if he earns the GOP nomination.
Anti-abortion groups, led by Susan B. Anthony List, the electoral front for the movement, have for years attempted to shape just the right tone for conservative candidates to take in their messaging in order to avoid the consequences of 2012’s “legitimate rape” disaster. A comment by a Republican Senate candidate, Todd Akin, about abortions not being necessary in cases of “legitimate rape” fed into a cycle dominated by Democratic accusations of a Republican “war on women.” Akin went on to lose his Senate race.
Since then, activists have counseled Republicans to focus on issues like the 20-week abortion ban—legislation that has broader support than banning abortion outright—in the hopes of painting Democrats as the ones out of touch on the issue. But Trump has now spawned a news cycle where the question Republicans surely will be asked is whether abortion-seekers should face jail time.
“We have never advocated, in any context, for the punishment of women who undergo abortion,” SBA List President Marjorie Dannenfelser said Wednesday 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 – which is legal in our country up until the moment of birth,” the statement continued. “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.”
Groups like SBA List have long viewed Trump’s conversion on abortion—he once described himself as having “pro-choice instincts”—with skepticism. The shift occurred around the time Trump amped up his involvement in Republican politics. In 2011, he whiffed on question about the legal underpinnings of the anti-abortion movement, prompting LifeNews.com, an anti-abortion website, to urge him to “study up on the abortion debate.”
Since declaring his candidacy, Trump’s also gotten in trouble with anti-abortion groups for taking positions they considered too moderate. Trump spoke positively about Planned Parenthood when Republicans were threatening to shut down the government over its funding, earning rebukes from anti-abortion activists like Dannenfelser.
Trump’s rivals pointed to his latest remarks as coming from that same well of problems. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) said in a statement that Trump “hasn’t thought seriously through the issues.”
“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 the statement. “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.”
Abortion rights advocates, meanwhile, scoffed at the space anti-abortion groups tried to put between their approach and Trump’s.
“Anti-choice groups trying to distance themselves from Donald Trump in this moment is politically convenient, but when it comes to opposing to Roe v. Wade, trying to impose unconstitutional bans on abortion, and defunding Planned Parenthood, it’s hard to see the differences between Donald Trump and these groups,” Kaylie Hanson, a spokeswoman for NARAL, said in an email to TPM.
Don’t expect Democrats to accept the logic that Trump simply doesn’t get the issue, either, as they attempt to link other Republican candidates to Trump’s remarks.
“The Republican Party’s presidential frontrunner has said out loud what the leaders of his party have been working toward since the right to a safe and legal abortion became settled law decades ago – the criminalization of women that denies them the right to make their own decisions about their health care,” DNC Chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said in a statement. “While Trump’s hateful rhetoric is the most disgusting in the current field, the other two Republican candidates aren’t much different when it comes to actual policy.”