(CNN) — Donald Trump scrambled to clarify his position on abortion and put out a firestorm of criticism Wednesday after he initially said women who obtain abortions should be punished.
Several hours later, in a statement, he said that women who obtain abortions are victims and, if Congress passes laws outlawing abortion, doctors who provide them should be punished.
“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. My position has not changed — like Ronald Reagan, I am pro-life with exceptions.”
The statement came after a long exchange with MSNBC host Chris Matthews, who pressured him to give a yes or no answer to the question, “should abortion be punished.” Women’s groups, Democrats, Republicans and even some pro-life groups immediately seized on the comments.
Trump, who once supported abortion rights, now favors outlawing the procedure, which he called “a very serious problem,” according to excerpts of an MSNBC town hall that is scheduled to air Wednesday evening.
“There has to be some form of punishment,” Trump said in the town hall.
Trump declined to specify how women should be punished if they underwent an illegal abortion.
The Republican front-runner conceded that outlawing the practice would lead some women to seek out abortions illegally.
“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 during the town hall.
Later Wednesday afternoon, Trump said in a statement released by campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks that “this issue is unclear and should be put back into the states for determination. Like Ronald Reagan, I am pro-life with exceptions, which I have outlined numerous times.”
Trump, who in 1999 said he was “pro-choice in every respect,” had previously declined to answer the question about what penalties he would support for women who undergo abortions or doctors who perform them.
“I just don’t want to talk about that right now,” Trump said during a news conference January in Iowa. “Everybody knows my views and I think my views are very plain,” Trump said.
Trump’s views of women scrutinized
Trump’s remark comes as he and his campaign are increasingly under the microscope for their treatment of women.
Trump has faced constant criticism throughout his campaign for comments he has made about women’s looks — from Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly to his former GOP opponent Carly Fiorina — and he has also taken flack in the last week for launching an unprompted attack against Sen. Ted Cruz’s wife.
After a super PAC opposed to Trump and unaffiliated with Cruz’s campaign posted an ad featuring a nude photo of Trump’s wife, the Republican front-runner threatened to “spill the beans” about Cruz’s wife and tweeted an unflattering photo of Cruz’s wife alongside a picture of his own wife. The Texas senator held a campaign event in Wisconsin Wednesday morning, appearing alongside his wife and Fiorina in which he pitched himself to women voters.
The scrutiny over the Trump campaign’s treatment of women continued this week after Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was charged Tuesday with simple battery for grabbing a female reporter’s arm after a news conference in Florida earlier this month.
And earlier Wednesday, 16 female conservatives called on Trump to fire Lewandowski.
Trump didn’t mention the abortion controversy while speaking at a campaign event in Appleton, Wisconsin, shortly after the comments were made public. But, regarding the charges against Lewandowski, Trump said, “Nobody’s a bigger supporter of women than Donald Trump.”
While Trump has maintained maintained throughout his presidential campaign that he is steadfastly opposed to abortion, the Republican front-runner has also sought to distinguish himself from his GOP opponents on women’s issues.
As his GOP rivals for the presidency joined Republicans in Congress in calling for the federal government to defund Planned Parenthood following allegations that the group illegally sold aborted fetal tissue, Trump has insisted that the organization provides essential services to “millions of women.”
Trump has called for the group to cease its abortion services — which are not funded by federal tax dollars — to continue receiving federal funding.
The town hall comments were met with immediate criticism from progressives.
Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton retweeted an NBC News reporter, adding, “Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse. Horrific and telling. -H.”
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders tweeted, “Your Republican frontrunner, ladies and gentlemen. Shameful.”
Trump’s Republican opponents quickly responded as well.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich told MSNBC, “Of course, women shouldn’t be punished for having an abortion.”
And Brian Phillips, a spokesman for Cruz, tweeted, “Don’t overthink it: Trump doesn’t understand the pro-life position because he’s not pro-life.”
Trump’s comment also drew a swift rebuke from Planned Parenthood’s advocacy arm, which called Trump’s comments “flat-out dangerous.
“Women’s lives are not disposable. There’s nothing else to say, as Donald Trump’s remarks today have said it all,” Executive Vice President of Planned Parenthood Action Fund Dawn Laguens said in a statement.
Top pro-life groups criticized Trump’s remarks as well, with the president of National Right to Life tweeting that Trump’s comments were “inept” and are “making pro-lifers cringe.”
March for Life, another top anti-abortion organization, called Trump’s comments “against the very nature of what we are about.”
“No pro-lifer would ever want to punish a woman who has chosen abortion,” the group tweeted.