Both Republicans and Democrats are blasting GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump for his statement, since retracted, that women who seek abortions should face “some form of punishment.”
But how different is Trump's original position from the real-world impact of laws and proposals supported by his two Republican presidential opponents, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich?
“Of course we shouldn't be talking about punishing women,” said Cruz, the second-leading GOP candidate who favored shutting down the federal government as a way to block Planned Parenthood funding.
“Of course women shouldn't be punished,” echoed Kasich, who has signed 17 anti-abortion measures into law since he became governor in 2011.
The GOP candidates are being joined in their dudgeon by anti-abortion leaders. “No one on the anti-abortion side advocates any kind of punishment for women who are being exploited by the abortion industry,” Peggy Nance, president of the Concerned Women for America, a prominent conservative group, told the Wall Street Journal.
Facing an uproar, Trump later backed off, saying the abortion provider should be the one facing punishment, not the woman.
But he didn't retract his statement on Wednesday that his support for an abortion ban may well mean that women will seek out illegal abortion providers.
He may or may not remember that reliance on back-alley providers led to women dying or suffering permanent injury in the decades before Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in 1973.
“Well, you go back to a position like they had, where people will perhaps go to illegal places, but you have to ban it,” he told MSNBC host Chris Matthews.
The difference between Trump's original stated position in favor of punishment and Cruz's and Kasich's hard-line anti-abortion stances depends on the definition of punishment, and on what the real-world implications of their anti-abortion proposals would be.
For instance, Cruz last summer signed a “personhood affirmation” circulated by Georgia Right to Life in which he committed to seek a “human life amendment” to the U.S. Constitution defining life as beginning at fertilization.
While the impact of proposed personhood measures is disputed, some experts say they would serve as the basis for prosecuting women who allegedly engage in actions that endanger fertilized eggs, embryos and fetuses, including seeking an abortion.
The principle of the Georgia measure endorsed by Cruz is that fertilized eggs, embryos, and fetuses are persons or have separate legal rights that must be protected by the state. Even without a personhood amendment, this rationale reportedly has been used in hundreds of cases across the county to deprive pregnant women of their autonomy and physical liberty.
Many doctors and women's advocates argue that such personhood proposals would lead to a dangerous intrusion of criminal law into healthcare.
In addition, Cruz has promised to seek a total ban on abortion that would offer no exception for cases of rape or incest, even though an overwhelming majority of Americans consistently say in polls that rape and incest victims should be able to access abortion.
For his part, Kasich, who prefers not to discuss abortion on the campaign trail, has signed 17 anti-abortion bills, defunded Planned Parenthood, and prohibited abortions at public hospitals and those receiving public funding. One bill he signed barred women from getting an abortion after the fetal age of viability, with no exception for cases of rape or incest—even though Kasich has said he favors an exception in those two situations. Another bill he signed established a rape crisis fund but banned rape crisis centers from getting money if they counsel rape survivors about abortion.
Since he became governor, half the Ohio clinics that offered abortions have stopped performing surgical abortions or have shut down, with some citing the law Kasich signed requiring that abortion providers have a transfer agreement with a hospital for emergency cases.
Last September, Kasich said he would sign a bill that would prohibit women from obtaining an abortion if the reason given was that the child would have Down syndrome. Unlike in Indiana, the Ohio bill didn't pass.
Medical experts warn that this type of legislation would endanger women's health by discouraging open communication between women and their doctors, and get in the way of follow-up care if women chose to go out of state to get the abortion.
Anti-abortion conservatives argue there's a big difference between Trump's statement Wednesday about punishing women for seeking an abortion and the tough measures supported by Cruz and Kasich. Trump's comments were “a political gift to Democrats and the left, who would like nothing better than to stereotype abortion opponents as misogynists who want to put women in jail,” the Wall Street Journal wrote in an editorial. “His abortion blunder is doubly troubling because it will reinforce his growing unpopularity among women voters in both parties.”
What the Journal editorialists didn't say is that the personhood amendment backed by Cruz could lead to criminal sanctions against women who endanger a fetus. The Ohio law signed by Kasich, which bans abortion with no exceptions for rape or incest, may force some women to live with a constant reminder of their traumatic experience. And laws they both support have made accessing abortion providers more difficult, stressful and uncertain.
Women voters who examine the abortion positions of the three Republican contenders may have a hard time seeing much difference.