Donald J. Trump, pressed Wednesday on his support for a ban on abortion and what it would mean in practice, said that “there has to be some form of punishment” for women who have abortions.
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.
The revision may have set a land-speed record for a recanting of a controversial political pronouncement: Mr. Trump’s suggestion that women should be punished to enforce an abortion ban, which came in an interview on MSNBC, set off an immediate firestorm of bipartisan criticism.
It was also the latest in a series of episodes that could be highly damaging to Mr. Trump, the Republican presidential front-runner, in a general election. His approval ratings among women are already low nationally.
Mr. Trump made the comments in a town-hall-style forum with the MSNBC host Chris Matthews that was prerecorded for broadcast Wednesday night. Mr. Matthews pressed Mr. Trump on his support for criminalizing abortion, asking him how he would enforce such a ban.
Mr. Trump, who formerly supported abortion rights but in recent years has changed his position, sought to dodge the question a few times, calling it “a very serious problem.”
“I am pro-life,” Mr. Trump said after a few attempts. Asked how an abortion ban would be put in place, he said, “You go back to a position like they had where they would perhaps go to illegal places. But you have to ban it.”
Finally, Mr. Matthews asked Mr. Trump, “You’re about to be chief executive of the United States. Do you believe in punishment for abortion, yes or no?”
Mr. Trump responded: “The answer is there has to be some form of punishment.”
“Ten days?” Mr. Matthews asked. “Ten years?”
Mr. Trump replied, “I don’t know,” adding, “It’s a very complicated position.”
Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, quickly called Mr. Trump’s remarks “horrific and telling” in a post on Twitter.
Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, one of Mr. Trump’s rivals for the Republican nomination, also promptly disagreed.
“Absolutely not,” Mr. Kasich told MSNBC, when apprised of Mr. Trump’s remarks. “I do have exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother, but of course women shouldn’t be punished.
“Look, you know — I think probably Donald Trump will figure out a way to say that he didn’t say it or he was misquoted or whatever, but I don’t think so,” Mr. Kasich added. “I don’t think that’s an appropriate response, and it’s a difficult enough situation than to try to punish somebody.”
Advocates on both sides of the abortion fight said that Mr. Trump sounded out of his depth on the issue, at best.
“Not only is this an unhinged position far from where the American people are, but it is sure to endanger women were he to become president,” said Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, which has endorsed Mrs. Clinton. “Everywhere abortion is illegal, the number of abortions don’t go down. But the number of injuries and deaths go up.”
Alluding to Tuesday’s arrest of Mr. Trump’s campaign manager on a charge of battery against a female journalist, Ms. Hogue added, “It’s appalling that in a week where Trump has blamed the victim of violence at the hands of his campaign manager, he would offer to be the leader to inflict more violence on women whether through forcing us back into the back alley or punishing us for making our own health care decisions.”
The view was similar from the political right.
“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 the March for Life Education and Defense Fund, said in a statement. “Being pro-life means wanting what is best for the mother and the baby.”
She added, “No pro-lifer would ever want to punish a woman who has chosen abortion.”
Mr. Trump had dodged similar questions in the past. In January, days before the caucuses in Iowa, he sidestepped a question about the penalties he thought were appropriate for providers of abortions or for the women who received them.
“I just don’t want to talk about that right now,” he said then. “Everybody knows my views, and I think my views are very plain.”
Mr. Trump’s campaign seemed to struggle at first to contend with the stir its candidate had caused.
Asked to clarify Mr. Trump’s views after a clip of the interview was alerted on Twitter at 2:15 p.m. Wednesday and shown on MSNBC a short time later, a campaign spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, issued a statement in Mr. Trump’s name at 3:16 p.m. that clarified little.
“This issue is unclear and should be put back into the states for determination,” it said. “Like Ronald Reagan, I am pro-life with exceptions, which I have outlined numerous times.”
Mr. Trump’s mop-up statement came at 4:54 p.m.
The afternoon’s events, including Mr. Trump’s late-afternoon emendation, raised questions not just among women’s rights groups, but also among Republicans who again questioned the authenticity of his late-in-life conversion on the abortion issue.
“The pro-life movement has historically regarded abortion as a tragedy for both the woman and the unborn child, and these comments from Donald Trump are a tragedy as well,” said Bruce Haynes, a Republican strategist.
“I’ve followed the issue at the state and federal levels, and I don’t recall any credible corner of the movement calling for criminal sanctions against women,” Mr. Haynes added. “This further illustrates not only a lack of empathy for women who have made a painful decision to undergo a tragic procedure, but also is the latest demonstration of a complete and thorough lack of understanding of complex issues and the nuances around them.”
And Penny Nance, the head of the conservative group Concerned Women for America and a supporter of Senator Ted Cruz, said Mr. Trump had helped fulfill a stereotype of the anti-abortion movement. “This is indicative of the fact that Donald Trump is a cynic who tries to play to people’s dark side,” she said. “In this case it bit him, because he doesn’t understand pro-life people or the life issue. He instead became the caricature that the left tries to paint us to be. The reality is that pro-lifers are compassionate people who deeply care for broken women and their babies.”
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