GOP frontrunner Donald Trump stumbled into political quicksand last week, alienating people on both sides of the abortion debate by saying women who obtain abortions should be punished.
Although Trump later retracted the remark, saying doctors should be held accountable, not women, the exchange with MSNCB anchor Chris Matthews at a Wisconsin Town Hall took a simmering issue to full boil at a time when an increasing number of people see abortion as a "threshold issue" that can influence their vote, an analysis in The Los Angeles Times said.
"A September 2015 Pew survey found 51 percent of Americans backed abortion rights, to 43 percent opposed. But among older and more conservative voters, target groups for the three GOP candidates, opposition to abortion has risen," political analyst Cathleen Decker wrote.
"What has changed most is the emphasis voters give the issue. A Gallup survey last year found a record percentage of Americans would only vote for a candidate with similar views on abortion rights — and abortion-rights supporters in that group now equaled those opposing abortion."
Into that fray strode Trump, who described his views as "very pro-choice" in 2000, but now says he is against abortion with the usual disclaimers — rape, incest or threat to the life of the mother. "Like Ronald Reagan, I am pro-life with exceptions," he said in a statement.
It was Matthews, not Trump, who first used the word "punished," but Trump echoed it in his answer, which, as Decker points out, follows a logical trajectory of law: If there is a crime, there must be a punishment.
"But his answer upended what has been a near-unanimous posture by abortion opponents that a woman should not be held criminally responsible," Decker wrote.
Pro-life advocates were quick to decry Trump's remarks. Eric Scheidler, executive director of the Pro-Life Action League, told People magazine the responsibility "should fall on abortion providers, not the women who turn to them in desperation.” And the magazine noted that two anti-abortion groups, Susan B. Anthony List and March for Life, said the women need "healing and compassion" and punishment should be "solely for the abortionist who profits off of the destruction of life."
Moreover, in his conversation with Matthews, Trump said an abortion ban would result in women seeking illegal abortions. "In one minute and 32 seconds, Donald Trump has managed to apparently validate every far-flung accusation of retributive, bloodthirsty woman-hating that abortion opponents have tried to fend off for 40-plus years," Ian Tuttle observed in National Review Online.
At The Federalist, Mollie Hemingway said Trump betrayed the pro-life movement and said his answers only made sense "if you imagine that Trump’s main goal was to sabotage everything the pro-life movement has ever worked for."
Hemingway could find evidence for her case over at Cosmopolitan magazine, which was quick to equate Trump's position with that of the pro-life movement with a headline that said "Anti-abortion groups claim they don't want women punished for having abortions, but there's good reason not to believe them." There, Brittney Cooper said returning to life before Roe v. Wade would be "wholly nightmarish."
Over at Salon, Amanda Marcotte extrapolated that the Trump-Matthews conversation reflected not just his views about abortion, but about women, and that Trump's remarks show that he — and, by extension, all abortion opponents — think women are "drooling idiots who cannot be trusted with something as simple as a medical decision regarding their own body."
If voters agree, Trump may suffer in the polls, political observers say. His favorable rating among women expected to vote in the general election is 21 percent, compared to 70 percent negative, New York Magazine reported.
"It's possible that Trump will emerge from yet another controversy relatively unscathed (at least among GOP primary voters), but by raising uncomfortable questions about pro-life dogma, he didn't do down-ballot Republican candidates any favors," Margaret Hartmann wrote.