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Trump goes where few pols have gone before, urges ‘punishment’ for women getting illegal abortions

Here's where the 2016 candidates stand on abortion. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

One of the benefits of running for office as an outsider is that you get to blaze your own path, ignoring the roads and driving across fields and streams as you see fit. But one of the drawbacks is you may drive into a minefield that everyone who's been doing this for a while already knew about.

On Wednesday, Donald Trump was asked by MSNBC's Chris Matthews if a woman who has a banned abortion should face criminal punishment. His response, after Matthews pressed him on it? "The answer is there has to be some sort of punishment."

MATTHEWS: Do you believe in punishment for abortion, yes or no, as a principle?
TRUMP: The answer is there has to be some form of punishment.
MATTHEWS: For the woman?
MATTHEWS: 10 cents, 10 years, what?
TRUMP: I don’t know. That I don’t know.

Trump was also asked if the man should be held responsible. "Different feelings. Different people," Trump responded. "I would say no."

Seeing the explosion in that minefield off in the distance, his opponents were quick to jump on the statement. Hillary Clinton tweeted, "Just when you thought it couldn't get worse. Horrific and telling." Bernie Sanders called it "shameful." Ted Cruz's rapid response director contrasted Trump's position with the mainstream pro-life position, which is that it is the person who performs the abortion that should be held liable.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the pro-life group Susan B. Anthony List, issued a statement that read, in part, "We have never advocated, in any context, for the punishment of women who undergo abortion."

Update: A few hours later, Trump reverses his position (while saying that he's not reversing his position).

There isn't much data on whether or not Americans think that women should be held criminally responsible for having an abortion. A survey from ThirdWay in 2008 found that a fifth of Americans thought that "people who perform or have abortion should go to jail" -- but note that the question includes those who perform the act.

What we do know is that just more than half of Americans believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Pew Research conducted a survey on the topic last fall and found that 51 percent of Americans, including 52 percent of women, favored legal abortion. Older people and more conservative people were more likely to oppose it -- but more than half of every political group besides conservative Republicans favored maintaining the legality of abortion.

Trump is relatively new to pro-life politics in part because he's relatively new to being pro-life. In 1999, he famously told Tim Russert that he was "very pro-choice." He changed his mind, he said during the first Republican debate, because "friends of mine years ago were going to have a child, and it was going to be aborted. And it wasn't aborted. And that child today is a total superstar, a great, great child. And I saw that."

The timing for Trump is particularly bad, given that he's facing new questions about his ability to win over female voters in a hypothetical general election. In recent surveys, nearly half of all women said they wouldn't support Trump -- and nearly a third of Republican women said they would be "upset" if he won the nomination. He is generally much more unpopular with women than men.

By the time this article goes live, I expect that Trump will have tweeted a "clarification" to his position, blaming Chris Matthews in some way. (See above; it took slightly longer.) We've seen this before; the political graveyard is overcrowded with predictions of doom for Donald Trump after he said something out of the mainstream. Which is to say: He's survived mine explosions in the past -- including ones focused on gender issues.

This issue, though, doesn't really comport itself to superficial analysis of political ramifications. It's personal to many Americans in a way that it can't be to Trump or myself, and has been the subject of an enormous amount of ethical and legal thought and debate. Of which Trump appears not to be terribly familiar -- which by itself is telling.

What Donald Trump is doing on the campaign trail

U.S. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event at Trump Doral golf course in Miami, Florida, U.S. July 27, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)