Responding to a question from MSNBC's Chris Matthews, Republican front-runner Donald Trump said women who have illegal abortions should be punished. Here's where other candidates stand as well. (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

APPLETON, Wis. — Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump came under fire Wednesday for saying that women should be subject to “some sort of punishment” for undergoing illegal abortions, a position that antiabortion and abortion rights groups alike emphatically denounced.

The GOP front-runner said during a pre-taped town hall hosted by MSNBC that criminal punishments would be appropriate for women seeking abortions if the procedure were made illegal nationwide.  Moderator Chris Matthews pressed Trump on the practical implications of banning abortions.

“This is not something you can dodge. If you say abortion is a crime or abortion is murder, you have to deal with it under the law. Should abortion be punished?" Matthews said.

"The answer is that there has to be some form of punishment," Trump responded. "There has to be some form.”

The real estate mogul repeatedly stated during the interview that he is antiabortion but did not weigh in on what specific punishments women would face if abortions were illegal.

He walked back his comments within hours, amid intense criticism on social media and from women's groups, clarifying that he believes decisions about punishments should be left to the states to decide. He further clarified that he does not think such punishments should focus on the women, a reversal from his earlier comments.

“This issue is unclear and should be put back into the states for determination,” Trump said in a statement to The Post. “Like Ronald Reagan, I am pro-life with exceptions, which I have outlined numerous times.”

“[T]he doctor or any other person performing this illegal act upon a woman would be held legally responsible, not the woman,” Trump added in a second statement Wednesday. “The woman is a victim in this case as is the life in her womb.”

The Republican front-runner faces a growing problem with women voters, which has emerged as a pressing concern for Republican leaders already aware of the party’s trouble with that demographic. Polling has shown Trump sliding heavily among women in recent months; his favorability rating among women has dropped 10 percentage points since November, standing now at 23 percent, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll taken this month. His unfavorable number is at 75 percent among women.


Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wis., on March 30. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Trump’s critics — Republican and Democratic alike — have said they think the way he speaks about women is misogynistic and reduces them to their appearance. They point to his ongoing feud with Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, whom he has repeatedly chastised in unusually personal terms. Those tensions flared again last week during a nasty fight with Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, his chief rival for the Republican nomination, after Trump retweeted an unflattering photo of Cruz's wife that compared her to Trump's wife, Melania, a former model.

“The images are worth a thousand words,” said the caption on the photo, which the billionaire retweeted to his 7.2 million followers.

Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, who is poised to become the first female presidential nominee of a major party, responded immediately via social media.

“Just when you thought it couldn't get worse. Horrific and telling,” Clinton wrote on Twitter.

Women’s groups were quick to weigh in as well, including Planned Parenthood Action and Emily’s List, both of which called Trump "dangerous" and blasted his comments.

“The last person women need to police their health-care decisions is someone who sees them not as people, but as ‘fat pigs,’ ‘bimbos’ and ‘disgusting animals,” said  Emily's List Communications Director Marcy Stech. “Republicans are about to nominate a truly dangerous man to lead their fight to restrict women’s access to abortion.”

“Donald Trump is flat-out dangerous. Women’s lives are not disposable,” said Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. “There’s nothing else to say, as Donald Trump’s remarks today have said it all.”

But the criticism did not come exclusively from groups on the left. The Susan B. Anthony List, a prominent antiabortion group, released a statement Wednesday stressing that it does not believe women should be punished for undergoing abortions.

“We have never advocated, in any context, for the punishment of women who undergo abortion,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, the group’s president. “[L]et us be clear: Punishment is solely for the abortionist who profits off of the destruction of one life and the grave wounding of another.”

Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who is also seeking the nomination, were both highly critical of Trump’s remarks and dismissed the idea that women who seek abortions should be punished.

"Once again Donald Trump has demonstrated that he hasn't seriously thought through the issues, and he'll say anything just to get attention,” Cruz said in a statement. “On the important issue of the sanctity of life, what's far too often neglected is that being pro-life is not simply about the unborn child; it's also about the mother -- and creating a culture that respects her and embraces life.”