Donald Trump knows that it’s important for anyone seeking his party’s presidential nomination to affirm that he opposes abortion rights.
He does not, however, know what that means.
Which is how he wound up wandering into a scary part of the political woods on Wednesday, first telling Chris Matthews that if abortion were ever illegal in this country, there would "have to be some form of punishment" for women who had one anyway. Later, he put out an unclarifying clarification that "this issue is unclear and should be put back into the states." Later still, he changed course again, and put out another statement.
"If Congress were to pass legislation making abortion illegal and the federal courts upheld this legislation," it said, "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. The woman is a victim in this case as is the life in her womb." That he needed a good chunk of the day to come up with that, after a cry went up from all quarters, tells us a lot.
Maybe it should go without saying, but a group that's about half of the American population is not exactly a monolith; what some folks who describe themselves as pro-life mean by that is that they do not believe abortion should be legal right up until birth, as is currently the case. Others who self-identify that same way believe that it should never be legal, period.
Accordingly, while some are focused on overturning Roe v. Wade, others would settle for a late-term ban, and others still prefer to concentrate on changing hearts and minds rather than laws.
Not all pro-lifers are conservative or Republicans, of course; about a third of registered Democrats describe themselves that way. Many are religious, but others oppose abortion not in deference to any law from God, but because of what they see as the violence it does both women and children.
This is why you never hear anyone who supports any kind of anti-abortion policy say they want to see a woman punished for having an illegal abortion.
It's also why actual pro-life advocates just about blew a fuse when they heard Trump's initial comment.
“Mr. Trump’s comment today is completely out of touch with the pro-life movement,'' Jeanne Mancini, 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. Women who choose abortion often do so in desperation and then deeply regret such a decision. No pro-lifer would ever want to punish a woman who has chosen abortion. This is against the very nature of what we are about.”
Fordham theology professor Charles Camosy, author of "Beyond the Abortion Wars ," about how anti-abortion legislation would have to include a whole host of supports for women and families, said, "it is a long-standing view of the mainstream pro-life movement that women are most often a victim of abortion," which "continues to serve patriarchal interests — not least by keeping a culture in place which makes it far easier for people to succeed if they aren't pregnant."
And Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List, said in a statement, “we have never advocated, in any context, for the punishment of women who undergo abortion."
To say that Trump doesn't seem to have given the issue a lot of thought would be an understatement. Neither the pro-choicer he used to claim to be nor the pro-lifer he now says he is seems to have spent much time around those for whom abortion is a topic of discussion.
People can and do change their mind about the issue, in both directions and for all kinds of reasons; because they saw a sonogram, or had an abortion, or knew someone who did.
Trump's own explanation is that he had a friend who considered getting an abortion and didn't go through with it: “It was going to be aborted and that child today is a total superstar. It is a great, great child.” It? No word on whether he would have had a different takeaway if the kid had instead grown into someone he saw as a loser, to use one of his favorite words.
In responding to Matthews, the Republican presidential front-runner seems to have been trying to guess what someone who has reservations about abortion rights would feel, think and say, but he guessed wrong. And then he guessed again.
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