WASHINGTON • Republican presidential front runner Donald Trump said on Wednesday that women who end pregnancies should face punishment if the United States bans abortion, triggering a torrent of criticism from both sides of the abortion debate, including from his White House rivals.
After MSNBC broadcast a clip of an interview with Mr Trump, the billionaire businessman backpedalled on his remarks, 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," Mr Trump said in a statement. "The woman is a victim in this case, as is the life in her womb."
Mr Trump's earlier comments 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.
Mr Trump has won support among Republican voters by selling himself as a Washington outsider. But the New York real estate tycoon, who once supported abortion access, has come under pressure from conservatives to prove that he is truly one of them.
At the same time, he has drawn criticism for comments that offended women and minority groups.
"Of course, women shouldn't be punished," rival Republican candidate John Kasich said, saying he opposed abortion except in specific cases such as rape.
Texas senator Ted Cruz, the third candidate for the Republican nomination for the Nov 8 election, said Mr Trump had not thought through the issue.
"What's far too often neglected is that being pro-life is not simply about the unborn child, it's also about the mother," he said.
Abortion rights supporters were equally incensed. "What Donald Trump said was outrageous and dangerous. I'm constantly taken aback at the kinds of things that he advocates for," Democratic front runner Hillary Clinton told MSNBC. "Once again, he has showed us who he is."
Anti-abortion groups said Mr Trump's comments were at odds with their own stance.
"In all the positions the US Conference of Catholic Bishops has taken around the issue of abortion, they have not called for punishment of women who have had abortions,"said Mr Don Clemmer, a spokesman for the group.