By the speed and testiness with which anti-abortion rights groups reacted to the latest Donald Trump misadventure, one might have thought the Republican front runner had just picked his running mate from Planned Parenthood's governing board. What he actually said — to MSNBC's Chris Matthews on Wednesday — was that if abortions are banned, there ought to be some form of punishment for women who obtain them in defiance of the law.
Now, that's a pretty awful thing to say, and the candidate later walked that remark back, explaining that if abortion were to be made illegal, it's the person performing the procedure, not the patient, who should be punished. But the awfulness starts with imagining Congress (or perhaps individual states if the Supreme Court ever reverses Roe v. Wade) banning a woman's access to reproductive health services including the termination of pregnancy. Suggesting she would then face jail time is just compounding the outrageousness.
Given Mr. Trump's propensity for the verbal gaffe and his lack of command of policy, his latest stumble would seem pretty much par for the course. But what was so noteworthy about the episode was not the candidate's behavior, it was the anger from the so-called "pro-life" side of the abortion debate where the reaction was not unlike Sen. Ted Cruz reading his latest National Enquirer clippings.
Anti-abortion forces like to say they don't want to punish women, but, of course, that's one of their biggest prevarications — and vulnerabilities. What Mr. Trump identified was the shocking intellectual dishonesty of the anti-abortion argument: If abortion represents murder (as opponents claim over and over again) and a fetus is equivalent to a baby lying in the crib, then how could they not punish the women who seek to "kill" that "unborn child?"
Abortion opponents direct their ire at providers, but that's a convenient way to dodge the logical conclusion of their argument. Those who provide the service aren't luring women into their clutches; it's desperate women who seek out clinics. And, as those who predate the 1973 Roe decision may recall, women are sometimes forced to take matters into their own hands as well — often with terrible and sometimes fatal consequences for themselves.
It's also laughable to suggest anti-abortion groups oppose the punishment of women or, as National Right to Life announced in a statement, oppose the "imposition of penalties on the woman on whom an abortion is attempted or performed." In reality, they support punishing such women every day by supporting laws that make it as difficult as possible for them to get appropriate reproductive health care — often through absurd regulations.
There are superfluous licensing standards and "safety" requirements imposed on clinics to the extent that many are forced to close, a failure to extend Medicaid coverage for the procedure so poor women can't afford it, mandated ultrasounds and counseling (in some cases, requiring doctors to tell patients patently false information such as a link between abortion and breast cancer) and waiting periods that seek only to delay, delay, delay. Anti-abortion protesters regularly scream terrible things at women and try to block their entry into clinics they may have driven hundreds of miles to reach, with "murderer" being one of the nicer things said.
How could a novice candidate be expected to realize that all that hatred, anger and punishment is perfectly fine, but there's a line carefully drawn at criminal indictment? How could Mr. Trump have recognized that "murder" might be the language of the anti-abortion movement, but "murderer" is a term applied only to caregivers? Moral certainty is a tricky business, particularly when it has such enormous loopholes in its logic. Perhaps Mr. Trump just wasn't aware that the movement likes to present a false sensitivity to the well-being of women. His bad.
Still, we wouldn't bet on this latest faux pas becoming a turning point for the Trump bandwagon. Mr. Trump appears to have fallen behind in Wisconsin, which conducts its primary Tuesday, the latest poll suggesting he trails Sen. Ted Cruz by 10 points. Whether a backlash against his abortion views or his recent mocking of Heidi Cruz or the arrest of his campaign manager have anything to do with it isn't clear. But in a primary election where there doesn't seem to be a tipping point for voters when it comes to Mr. Trump's buffoonery, we wouldn't count on discovering one now.