As indicated in national polls and in the polls for the April 5 battleground primary in Wisconsin, Donald Trump’s astonishing popularity finally seems to be eroding. Most commentators have attributed this to one key gaffe.
Last Wednesday, at a Town Hall Meeting in Green Bay, Wisconsin, Trump was asked about the legal implications of his position that, with just a few exceptions, abortion should be made illegal. Trump first conceded that if abortions were banned, then many women would seek out illegal options. When pressed on what the consequences should be for those women, Trump stated that “there has to be some form of punishment.”
This immediately ignited angry reactions from both “pro-choice” abortion rights advocates and “pro-life” abortion opponents. Hillary Clinton, who supports abortion rights, denounced Trump’s comment, while adding that it did not measurably differ from the views of the rest of the Republican candidates. Meanwhile, the staunchly “pro-life” Ted Cruz seized upon the outrage to court women voters, with a “celebration of strong women” rally in Madison, Wisconsin. His wife, mother, and Carly Fiorina were featured guests.
In a rare move for a candidate who seldom admits an error, Trump reversed his position within a matter of hours. His campaign website now re-states his position on abortion to hold that “the woman is a victim in this case as is the life in her womb,” and that only abortion providers should be held legally liable. Even this weekend, he and his surrogates continue to do damage control, asserting (tendentiously) that his initial comments were taken out of context, and that his position on abortion is the same as was Ronald Reagan’s.
Granted that Trump has had a tough week when it comes to appealing to women voters: a close campaign aide was arrested on Tuesday for assaulting a woman reporter. But given a campaign marked by many other incendiary, racist, and sexist comments and actions, it’s interesting that this statement on abortion finally seems to have risen to the level of a truly damaging mistake.
For those who support abortion rights, the outrage is obvious. Trump basically acknowledged a point that has long been part of the “pro-choice” case, that if women were denied access to legal abortion services, many would resort to options that were not only criminal, but dangerous. A bloody coat hanger has long served as an icon of the “pro-choice” side, as a reminder of the horrific methods by which women tried to end unwanted pregnancies before the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision made abortion legal. And then more generally, it is easy to see Trump’s comments about punishing women as entirely in keeping with his authoritarian brand of misogyny, incisively analyzed in a recent article by Franklin Foer (“Donald Trump Hates Women”).
But it’s not just the “pro-choice” side that has reacted badly to Trump’s statement. In fact, his support has significantly eroded among Republican women, many of whom are likely to be “pro-life.” For abortion foes, Trump’s initial comment and its walk-back serve as a reminder that he considered himself “very pro-choice” as recently as 1999. But even beyond this, Trump’s comments reopen debates about the legal and social implications of abortion that “pro-life” forces have worked hard to close.
Abortion rights advocates and feminists in general have long charged that abortion opponents are less concerned with protecting fetal life than they are with asserting patriarchal control over women’s sexual and reproductive decisions. Pro-lifers have responded to this by (condescendingly) asserting that they are protecting women who, along with the “unborn” are also potential “victims” of a predatory abortion “industry.”
When Trump’s campaign posted his revised view that in an abortion “the woman is a victim…as is the life in her womb,” he was simply falling in line with pro-life orthodoxy. But the damage had been done. With his comments about “punishment,” Trump may very well have given voice to what many already believe to be the case about the anti-abortion movement: that it is out to “punish” women whose sexual behavior they disapprove of. Further, he exposed an uncomfortable fact that what the pro-life side wants to achieve is a legal situation in which intimate issues of women’s reproduction would be, if not grounds for criminal prosecution, then at least matters of state interest. (Some pro-choice activists have actually found a humorous side to this. To protest some very restrictive new abortion laws in Indiana, they have been calling Governor Mike Pence’s office to report on the status of their menstrual cycles!).
Actually, Clinton wasn’t quite right when she noted that Trump’s views on abortion were more or less the same as the rest of the Republican field. Cruz, in particular, has been at the forefront of efforts to withdraw public funding from Planned Parenthood, an organization that provides a wide range of women’s health care services, all because they also provide abortions. And he has surrounded himself with extremely controversial anti-abortion activists like Troy Newman, a co-chair of Pro-Lifers for Cruz, who has equated abortion providers with murderers and has publicly defended those who have taken it upon themselves to murder abortion doctors.
Though Trump has done absolutely nothing to elevate the tone of this election, perhaps with this controversy he will at least have done us this one service—of exposing the hypocritical rhetoric and implicit violence that underlies several candidates’ positions on the abortion issue.