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Why Trump's Abortion Comments Are Angering Both Pro-Life and Pro-Choice Supporters

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Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Well, it looks like we’ve finally found the thing that will unite the Democratic and Republican parties: anger over Donald Trump’s recent comments about abortion – in particular his suggestion that women should be punished for having the procedure.

Once describing himself as “pro-choice in every respect,” Trump says he’s evolved on the issue and that he’s now pro-life, with exceptions for rape, incest, and life of the mother. He reiterated his stance at a town hall in Green Bay, Wisconsin, this week after an audience member asked for his thoughts on women’s rights. The town hall’s moderator, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, however, wasn’t satisfied.

Matthews asked Trump what the law should be on abortion, and if he believes there should be a punishment. “This isn’t something you can push off,” Matthews argued. “If you say abortion is a crime, abortion is murder, then you have to deal with it under the law.”

“There has to be some form of punishment,” Trump answered (after a few minutes of goading and fighting with Matthews about his Catholic faith). “I have not determined what the punishment should be.” He also added that the father should not be punished in such a situation.

Within minutes of the conversation hitting the Internet, the backlash was swift – and bipartisan. Trump’s camp stepped back and issued a new statement: “This issue is unclear and should be put back into the states for determination. Like Ronald Reagan, I am pro-life with exceptions.”

Hours later, the Trump campaign reevaluated their position again, releasing a second statement that completely contradicted Trump’s initial comments on the topic of penalties for abortion.

“The doctor or any other person performing this illegal act upon a woman would be held legally responsible, not the woman,” the campaign’s statement read. “The woman is a victim in this case as is the life in her womb.”

Why Pro-Lifers Are Angry

The central goal of the pro-life movement may be to eliminate abortion, but to the vast majority, the responsibility doesn’t lie with the woman getting an abortion, but the doctor who is providing it.

Even the most staunch pro-life groups were quick to express their disappointment with Trump’s initial statements. Susan B. Anthony List and March for Life, two of the country’s most prominent anti-abortion groups, tweeted that women who have abortions need “healing and compassion” and that punishment is “solely for the abortionist who profits off of the destruction of life.”

Eric Scheidler, executive director of the Pro-Life Action League and a long-time pro-lifer, says that the responsibility of an illegal abortion “should fall on abortion providers, not the women who turn to them in desperation.

“If Donald Trump is going to run successfully as a pro-life candidate, it’s time he started listening to the pro-life movement,” he says.

Trump’s Republican rivals said much of the same.

“But of course women shouldn’t be punished,” Republican candidate John Kasich said. “I don’t think that’s an appropriate response. It’s a difficult enough situation.”

Fellow GOP presidential hopeful Ted Cruz echoed Scheidler’s sentiments, saying in a statement that being pro-life isn’t just about the “unborn child,” but the mother as well – something that is “far too often neglected.” The movement, he said in a statement, is about “creating a culture that respects her and embraces life.”

“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,” he said.

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Cruz has long been a critic of Trump’s stance on abortion. In a February 2016 attack ad, the Cruz campaign ran clips of a 1999 Meet the Press interview in which Trump said that he was “very pro-choice” and wouldn’t ban partial-birth abortions if he were president. The ad said “we cannot trust Donald Trump with these serious decisions” – although they neglected to include that Trump said he didn’t like the “concept of abortion.”

Why Pro-Choicers Are Angry

As to be expected, the negative kickback was swift from pro-choice organizations like Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Democratic presidential candidates were fuming too: Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders spoke out against Trump’s comments in interviews with Rachel Maddow. Sanders said: “To punish a woman for having an abortion, it’s beyond comprehension,” while Clinton called Trump’s comments “among the most dangerous and outrageous statements that I’ve heard anybody running for president say in a really long time.”

However, Democrats weren’t just condemning Trump in their retorts, but his rivals as well. “The fact is, Trump isn’t that different from every other Republican candidate who would also outlaw abortion,” Clinton tweeted. “Remember: If you make abortion a crime, you make women who seek abortions criminals. You put one in three women at risk.”

Sanders added that the continuing focus on abortion will ultimately diminish the Republican party’s power.

“If the Republican party continues in this direction, they will be a fringe party,” Sanders told Rachel Maddow. “They have nothing to say. All they can appeal is to a small number of people who feel very rabid about a particular issue, whether it’s abortion or gay marriage.”

On the debate stage, however, Trump has repeatedly spoken out in defense of Planned Parenthood. “Millions of millions of women – cervical cancer, breast cancer – are helped by Planned Parenthood,” Trump said at the February 25 CNN debate in Houston. “I would defund it because I’m pro-life, but millions of women are helped by Planned Parenthood.”

While some may doubt Trump’s commitment to the pro-life cause, others, like Scheidler, say that he just needs to get to know the movement better.

“Donald Trump is a fairly new convert to the pro-life position,” he said. “I take him at his word that he abhors abortion, but now it’s time he deepen his understanding of how we can actually bring an end to this injustice.”

He added: “Punishing women is no part of the answer.”