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Trump Answer Ignites Backlash, Invites Questions On Abortion Ban

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Something unusual happened in the presidential campaign this week. Activists from across the political spectrum came out on the same side of an issue, and not a small issue, abortion rights and whether women who've had illegal abortions should be punished. For groups on both sides of the question, the answer is no. And Donald Trump brought them together with this answer to a question from MSNBC's Chris Matthews.

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CHRIS MATTHEWS: Do you believe in - do you believe in punishment for abortion, yes or no, as a principle?

DONALD TRUMP: The answer is that there has to be some form of punishment.

MATTHEWS: For the woman?

TRUMP: Yeah, there has be some form.

SIMON: Mr. Trump, within hours, reversed himself and the moment of harmony among activists passed just as quickly. Here's NPR's Sarah McCammon.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: There was a time in America when states could decide whether abortion should be legal.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Good evening. In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court today legalized abortions.

MCCAMMON: That all changed in 1973 with Roe v. Wade, which invalidated state laws banning abortion. Since then, anti-abortion rights groups have made overturning Roe their goal while abortion rights advocates work to keep the procedure legal. Without realizing it, Donald Trump stepped right into the middle of a long-standing debate and gave fodder to the argument of abortion rights groups. Stephanie Schriock is with EMILY's List, a group that backs Democratic female candidates who support abortion rights.

STEPHANIE SCHRIOCK: Punishing women is what the Republicans' anti-choice agenda has always been about.

MCCAMMON: That's not the goal, according to anti-abortion rights groups. And their response this week has been unified.

CHELSEA SHIELDS: We need to make sure that mothers are protected from any criminal liabilities...

CATHY RUSE: The woman involved would not be criminally liable...

ERIC SCHEIDLER: The rational way to do that is to impose penalties on the abortion providers, not on the women seeking abortions.

MCCAMMON: That's Chelsea Shields of Wisconsin Right to Life, Cathy Ruse of the Family Research Council and Eric Scheidler of the Pro-Life Action League in Chicago. So if criminalization of the procedure for women is not the goal, the question then is how would anti-abortion statutes be enforced if Roe v. Wade were overturned?

RUSE: I don't know. I can't answer that.

MCCAMMON: Cathy Ruse with the Family Research Council says the answer would largely depend on the state.

RUSE: I mean, the states could pass limitations on gestational age. You can't abort a baby after 3 months, 6 months.

MCCAMMON: Most anti-abortion rights groups point to penalties against doctors. A spokeswoman for the National Right to Life Committee said states could pass some combination of civil and criminal penalties for performing abortions. Chelsea Shields, with the group's Wisconsin chapter, says she's not sure exactly what those penalties should be, but they should be serious.

SHIELDS: We'll have to explore that because we know an unborn child is just as human as an adult human being. So it's a matter of making sure that we send this same message, that that unborn child has the same right to life. It's exactly the same.

MCCAMMON: Advocates for abortion rights say it's not a hypothetical question. Helene Krasnoff is a lawyer with Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

HELENE KRASNOFF: It's disingenuous to say that these policies are not already about punishing women. Criminalizing abortion doesn't eliminate the need. It drives women to seek unsafe care. And we saw it before Roe when women died.

MCCAMMON: Criminalizing the procedure may be the endpoint that abortion rights supporters fear. But fewer than 1 in 5 Americans want to ban all abortions, according to public opinion polls. Lanae Erickson is with the centrist think tank Third Way.

LANAE ERICKSON: Americans are pretty satisfied with where we've ended up right now on abortion. And I think that's why you've seen a lot of pushback to the Donald Trump statement because he's drawing a picture that's so very different from where we are right now.

MCCAMMON: A picture those on both sides of the abortion debate rejected this week. Sarah McCammon, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.