On 30 March 2016, Twitter lit up over the trending topic “some form of punishment,” based on partial remarks made by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump pertaining to potential legal sanctions against women who obtained abortions if the procedure were illegal.
Abortion is a perennial hot button political issue, and Trump’s former Republican presidential rival Marco Rubio was recently the subject of a satirical item pertaining to abortion and punishment. Trump’s controversial remark on the subject occurred during a taped sit-down between Trump and MSNBC interviewer Chris Matthews, clips (and transcripts) of which circulated online prior to the segment’s initial broadcast:
Transcript doesn’t even do it justice- you have to watch the clip to appreciate the extent of the self-immolation. https://t.co/2S0YRqtBkL
— Liam Donovan (@LPDonovan) March 30, 2016
Trump averred in the interview that “there has to be some form of punishment for the woman” (who obtains an abortion if such a procedure were not legal):
Absent from the available portions of the then-unaired segment was some of the context of the conversation between Matthews and Trump that led up to the latter’s controversial statement. Most transcripts or clips commenced with Matthews asking whether “the woman” should be “punished for having an abortion,” suggesting that the interchange didn’t start there and some previous discussion had been elided. Moreover, from what little was known of the segment at the time, it appeared that Matthews (not Trump) was the first to introduce the concept of “punishment” in reference to abortion. Trump visibly struggled to navigate two related but different concepts: the current legality of abortion in America, and a hypothetical future in which abortion was illegal and subject to (criminal) penalties.
Rival campaigns quickly weighed in on the controversy. Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders condemned the remarks, and a campaign staffer for Republican Ted Cruz characterized Trump’s remarks as ignorant from the perspective of the anti-abortion movement:
Don’t overthink it: Trump doesn’t understand the pro-life position because he’s not pro-life. — Brian Phillips (@RealBPhil) March 30, 2016
A prominent anti-abortion group commented on the issue and denied that legal sanctions for women were a goal of the movement (though opponents have historically claimed otherwise):
Trump issued a contradictory statement on 30 March 2016 asserting that he was “pro-life with exceptions” and holding that if abortion were banned, “the doctor or any other person performing this illegal act upon a woman would be held legally responsible, not the woman”:
In the cacophonous brouhaha, we were unable to locate a transcript or video segment that included of the exchange leading up to Matthews’ question. Presumably, the question of breaking hypothetical anti-abortion laws didn’t arise abruptly, and a prior exchange included the context necessary to properly parse Trump’s answers. It wasn’t even clear if the aired footage would include the discussion leading up to the exchange in question. NBC Trump correspondent Katy Tur published several clarifying tweets about the controversy underscoring the context of the remarks and adding that the position reluctantly espoused by Trump was one from which anti-abortion operatives typically distanced themselves:
Politically, he is basically alone on that issue. Both Planned Parenthood and The March for Life in a rare moment of agreement on this. — Katy Tur (@KatyTurNBC) March 30, 2016
The debate between Matthews and Trump over the legal status of abortion was not novel. Abortion rights advocates frequently approach the subject from that hypothetical viewpoint and have embraced the question as a rhetorical tool in abortion debate:
Buried among prairie dogs and amateur animation shorts on YouTube is a curious little mini-documentary shot in front of an abortion clinic in Libertyville, Ill. The man behind the camera is asking demonstrators who want abortion criminalized what the penalty should be for a woman who has one nonetheless. You have rarely seen people look more gobsmacked. It’s as though the guy has asked them to solve quadratic equations. Here are a range of responses: “I’ve never really thought about it.” “I don’t have an answer for that.” “I don’t know.” “Just pray for them.” You have to hand it to the questioner; he struggles manfully. “Usually when things are illegal there’s a penalty attached,” he explains patiently. But he can’t get a single person to be decisive about the crux of a matter they have been approaching with absolute certainty. A new public-policy group called the National Institute for Reproductive Health wants to take this contradiction and make it the centerpiece of a national conversation, along with a slogan that stops people in their tracks: how much time should she do?
Tur’s series of tweets included one that placed the comment in the context of ongoing abortion debate, while Trump’s inability to answer the question succinctly was interpreted by anti-abortion groups and individuals as an indication he might be unfamiliar with the anti-abortion movement’s details:
The point many anti abortion rights advocates are making is that Trump didn’t understand the topic which questions his credibility on topic. — Katy Tur (@KatyTurNBC) March 30, 2016
In fairness to Trump, the question was very difficult to answer given its largely rhetorical nature (especially given that it has no “right” answer, and any answer would inevitably disappoint a large segment of the audience).
Donald Trump responded to a question by saying there should be “some form of punishment for the woman” who obtained an abortion if the procedure were illegal, but that answer appeared to be one made in the context of a hypothetical discussion about bans on abortion that do not currently exist. Trump did not state that women should be subject to punishment for having abortions under the law as it stands, nor did he voice a forceful opinion without extensive wheedling from Matthews.
The scenario in which Trump’s remarks occurred is often presented with the stated intent of prompting abortion opponents to consider the full extent of their position rather than to elicit an honest answer. Trump didn’t appear to have any position on hypothetical consequences for abortions were they outlawed before the question was asked, and he made several attempts to dodge the thread of the discussion (but was pressed for an answer by Matthews). Since the clip began circulating, the Trump campaign had made multiple attempts to clarify his position on abortion, and we were unable to locate any prior statements from Trump proactively suggesting that women who had abortions should be punished.
Goldberg, Michelle. ” Women Are Being Arrested and Jailed for Self-Abortion.”
The Nation. 10 June 2015.
Quindlen, Anna. “How Much Jail Time for Women Who Have Abortions?”
Newsweek. 5 August 2007.