Donald Trump careened between polar-opposite positions on abortion Wednesday, demonstrating in the space of about 180 minutes the hazards of speaking off the cuff on a sensitive subject. First, speaking with Chris Matthews of MSNBC, he said that if abortion were outlawed, there would “have to be some form of punishment” for the women who had them anyway. He declined to specify what that punishment would be.
Then, about three hours later, he responded to backlash against his comments by taking it back. If Congress or any state outlawed abortion with the support of the federal courts, he said, the doctor who performed the abortion would be held responsible, not the woman. “The woman is a victim in this case,” he said in a statement, “as is the life in her womb.”
He may have changed his position after realizing that his earlier stance put him outside Republican candidate norms. In 2007, former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, a forceful opponent of abortion, said he wouldn’t penalize a woman who sought an abortion because he considered her “a victim, not a criminal.” In 2011, another anti-abortion advocate, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, said that doctors should face criminal penalties, adding that he’s “never supported criminalization of abortion for mothers.”
But it’s hard to say how far Trump diverges from Republicans or others who oppose abortion generally, because they’re rarely asked.
The most recent question about penalties for abortion I could find in the Roper iPOLL database was asked more than 15 years ago. In a 2000 Los Angeles Times poll of U.S. adults, respondents were asked who, if anyone, should be punished if abortions were illegal.
About a third (32 percent) of respondents said the doctor who performed the abortion should be punished, and 20 percent said everyone involved with the abortion should be held responsible.1 Ten percent thought the woman who had the abortion should be punished, and only 1 percent said the father should be held responsible. Almost a quarter (23 percent) of respondents said no one should be punished, and an additional 12 percent said they weren’t sure.
That survey, one of the most recent available, still didn’t touch on what the punishment would be. When I surveyed protesters at the 2016 March for Life in Washington, I asked what kind of penalties they believed would be appropriate for doctors who performed abortions and women who sought them. Half of the 60 activists I interviewed said the doctor should be charged with murder, and only 15 percent said the woman should be charged with murder.
My experience doing in-person surveys made me a little skeptical about the results from phone polls. The people I spoke to often paused for a long time to think; offered answers that weren’t on my list (“require her to get counseling” was a frequent response); or told me stories about people they had known who had had and regretted an abortion and how that shaped their opinion.
It’s hard to imagine capturing that range of responses in any kind of scripted poll. Which may be why so few polls on this topic exist.