Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump said on Wednesday “there has to be some form of punishment” for women who have abortions, triggering a torrent of criticism from both sides of the abortion debate, including from his White House rivals. He took that statement back dramatically just hours later, but not before causing a huge media firestorm.

Trump, who was talking to MSNBC’s Chris Matthews for a pretaped town hall in Wisconsin to be aired Wednesday night, said that the women who end pregnancies should face punishment if the United States bans abortion. Soon after the MSNBC broadcast a clip of an interview with Trump, the billionaire businessman slipped off his stand, first saying that the abortion issue should be handled by states and later that doctors who performed abortions should be the ones held responsible. “The doctor or any other person performing this illegal act upon a woman would be held legally responsible, not the woman,” Trump said in his last statement. “The woman is a victim in this case as is the life in her womb.” Trump’s earlier statements drew heavy fire from abortion rights supporters and opponents alike. Abortion has long been a divisive issue in American politics, even though the procedure was legalised in a Supreme Court ruling more than 40 years ago. Opposition to abortion has become a central plank in the platform of most conservative politicians.

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