Trump Said He Planned to Punish Women Who Violated Abortion Bans — Then Quickly Reversed Himself

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We are about to find out if Donald J. Trump’s famously bulletproof invulnerability to consequences for the offensive things he says has limits. During an MSNBC town-hall event, the GOP front-runner advanced a position that has shocked both the right and left:

Trump said Wednesday there would “have to be some form of punishment” for women who have abortions if the procedure were outlawed in the U.S.

Host Chris Matthews pressed Trump on his anti-abortion position, repeatedly asking him whether abortion should be punished if it is outlawed. “This is not something you can dodge … 

I am pro-life,” Trump said. Asked how a ban would actually work, Trump said, “Well, you go back to a position like they had where they would perhaps go to illegal places but we have to ban it,” Trump said.

Matthews then pressed Trump on whether he believes there should be punishment for abortion if it were illegal

“There has to be some form of punishment,” Trump said. “For the woman?” Matthews asked. “Yeah,” Trump said, nodding.

Trump said the punishment would “have to be determined.”

Here’s a video clip of the exchange:

Well, at least he did not specify public shaming or incarceration. But not only did Trump offend the majority of Americans who are pro-choice, and the many millions of women who have exercised their constitutional right to an abortion, but he’s also violated an unwritten rule of the anti-choice movement: Don’t treat the women as the baby-killers.

Yes, anti-choicers screw up now and then in their fury at women and talk about those “murdered in the womb by their own mothers.” But the leaders of the movement know how politically fatal that is, and hasten to deny any interest in treating those having abortions as perpetrators. Here’s the central argument of a long essay by an attorney for Americans United for Life denying that women were punished for having abortions prior to Roe v. Wade, by way of assuring there would be no punishments if abortion bans were restored:

[T]he almost uniform state policy before Roe was that abortion laws targeted abortionists, not women. Abortion laws targeted those who performed abortion, not women. In fact, the states expressly treated women as the second “victim” of abortion; state courts expressly called the woman a second “victim.” Abortionists were the exclusive target of the law.

True or not, that’s the pro-life party line today. And perhaps because he appears to have casually adopted an anti-abortion stance as the price of admission to the GOP, Trump didn’t get the memo. 

Realizing quickly that he has stepped in it, the Trump campaign tried a strategic retreat:

Following outcry over his comments, the Trump campaign issued a statement: “This issue is unclear and should be put back into the states for determination.”

While this is indeed an all-purpose conservative dodge on difficult policy issues, and the immediate effect of an overturning of Roe, Trump won’t get off the hook for saying the states should figure out how to punish women for trying to control their own bodies. Really damaging gaffes are those that strongly reinforce bad things we sort of knew already about the politicians who utter them. This one qualifies.

Update: The Trump campaign quickly backed away from this message. Reports the Times:

Less than three hours later, Mr. Trump revised himself, issuing a written statement saying that such a ban would criminalize only those performing the procedure, not the women getting abortions. “The woman is a victim in this case, as is the life in her womb,” he said.