Donald Trump stepped in it bigtime:

“I am pro-life,” Mr. Trump said after a few attempts. Asked how an abortion ban would be put in place, he said, “You go back to a position like they had where they would perhaps go to illegal places. But you have to ban it.”

Finally, Mr. Matthews asked Mr. Trump, “You’re about to be chief executive of the United States. Do you believe in punishment for abortion, yes or no?”

Mr. Trump responded: “The answer is there has to be some form of punishment.”

“Ten days?” Mr. Matthews asked. “Ten years?”

Mr. Trump replied: “I don’t know,” adding, “It’s a very complicated position.”

This is how you know Trump hasn’t thought about abortion for more than five seconds, much less has had contact with the pro-life movement. Almost everybody in the pro-life movement rejects the idea of punishing women who abort their children.

It sounds illogical to the pro-choice side, and they have a point. If abortion is tantamount to murder, then why let the woman who hired the hit man abortionist get away without penalty?

The answer is because the pro-life side is not so much interested in punishing women as it is in saving the lives of unborn children. Ross Douthat, in an exchange last year with the feminist Katha Pollitt, provided a good answer to a tough question. The question below comes from Pollitt:

8. Murder. If zygotes are people, abortion is infanticide, a very serious crime. Kevin Williamson, a correspondent for National Review, has said that women who have abortions should be hanged. That’s going pretty far. After all, if every woman who had an abortion were executed, who would raise the children? But if abortion becomes a crime, what do you think the punishment should be? I’m assuming you approve of jailing the provider, but what about the parent who makes the appointment, the man who pays, the friend who lends her car? Aren’t they accomplices? And what about the woman herself? No fair exempting her as a victim of coercion or manipulation or the culture of death. We take personal responsibility very seriously in this country. Patty Hearst went to prison despite being kidnapped, raped, locked in a closet and brainwashed into thinking her captors were her only friends. Our prisons are full of people whose obvious mental illness failed to move prosecutors or juries. Why should women who hire a fetal hit man get a pass?

This is the hardest and most reasonable question, and the place where I least expect my answer to convince. But here I think the pro-choice side of the argument, the argument for not making abortion illegal at all, rests on a belief that many pro-lifers actually share: That while abortion is killing, while it is murder, it is also associated with a situation, pregnancy, that’s unlike any other in human affairs, and as such requires a distinctive legal response. No other potential murderer has his victim inside his body, no other potential murder victim is not in some sense fully physically visible and present to his assailant and the world, no other human person presents herself (initially, in the first trimester) to her potential killer in what amounts to a pre-conscious state. And again: no other human experience is like pregnancy, period, whether or it comes expectedly or not.

These are not, in my view, strong arguments for the pro-choice view that we should license the killing of millions of unborn human beings. But I think they are strong arguments for maintaining the distinctive approach to enforcement that largely prevailed prior toRoe v. Wade, in which the law targeted abortionists and almost never prosecuted women. And I don’t think pro-lifers should be afraid to say that a pregnant woman’s decision to take a first-trimester life is simply a different kind of murder than the murder of a five-year-old, and one where the law should err on the side of mercy toward the woman herself in a way that it shouldn’t in other cases, and reserve the force of prosecution for the abortionist, the man or woman who isn’t experiencing the pregnancy, instead.

This approach is, yes, exceptional in terms of how the state treats homicide. But its “exception from the general rule seems to be justified by the wisdom of experience,” as a pre-Roe court ruling put it. And while — again — pregnancy is unique, it is not the only situation where older legal forms approached killing in distinctive ways. Suicide, for instance, was historically treated as a form of murder in many jurisdictions, but attempted suicides were hardly ever prosecuted for the attempted murder that they had committed, whereas people who assisted in suicide were more likely to be charged. And a version of that distinction survives today: Suicide itself has now been largely decriminalized but assisting a suicide is still illegal, though of course a subject of much culture-war controversy, in most U.S. states.

Could one argue that this combination is illogical — that if we don’t throw attempted suicides in jail we shouldn’t make it illegal to help them make their quietus? Certainly; this is an increasingly popular position. But I think the older position, which recognizes the reality that suicide is murder but also treats it distinctively and assigns legal culpability in a particular-to-that-distinction way, is actually the one more consonant with justice overall. And in a different-but-related way, the same is true for abortion: A just society needs to both recognize abortion as murder and grapple with its distinctives, and that’s what an effective pro-life legal regime would need to do.

What Trump did was violate pro-life movement orthodoxy in a way that plays right into the hands of the left. See, they’ll say, that’s exactly what these anti-choice fanatics really want to do! It’s not remotely true, but now advocates for one socially conservative cause that’s actually making headway, however limited, will have to hit the ground distancing themselves from Trump. And this is exactly the kind of statement that will bring out feminists and liberals in droves to vote for Hillary this fall, if Trump is the nominee — especially given his long, documented history of disrespect for women. 

He’s like the Pope Francis of the Republican Party. He just says whatever comes to mind.

UPDATE: Aaaaaaaand … he’s recanted.