A week after Donald Trump said women who have illegal abortions should "face some sort of punishment," the Republican presidential candidate tried to redeem himself on Tuesday by insisting that women should still vote for him because he will protect them from terrorists.
Anti-abortion leaders balked. "My question is, who's gonna protect us from him?" said Penny Nance, the president of the conservative Christian activist group Concerned Women for America.
CWA is one of several major anti-abortion groups that have been actively campaigning against Trump in the GOP primary. The organization held an event along with Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion political action committee, ahead of South Carolina's primary in February that carried the slogan, "Anyone But Trump." If the controversial real estate mogul wins the Republican nomination and faces off against Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, the most pro-abortion rights candidate in history, the anti-abortion movement will find itself in a very uncomfortable position.
"I don't know that we would endorse anyone," Nance said in an interview with The Huffington Post. "That would be a horrible choice for our members. As questionable as Donald Trump's judgment is, sadly, we know Hillary's positions, and they are the opposite of what we believe to be good policy."
The problem is not only that Trump once called himself "very pro-choice.” It's that his comments last week -- that abortion should be banned and women who have the procedure after that should be punished -- undermines years of carefully crafted messaging by abortion opponents, who have long sought to portray themselves as caring and compassionate toward women. Trump essentially repeated the main talking point of the abortion rights movement: that lawmakers are trying to punish women by making abortion difficult or impossible to access.
"This idea that women should be punished is really out of line with the pro-life movement," said Jeanne Mancini, president of the annual anti-abortion protest March for Life. "I'm not aware of any laws pro-lifers have been behind that would punish the woman."
Despite the protests of anti-abortion activists, Trump's comments drew attention to the fact that many of these laws do in fact punish women. In some states, women have to drive hundreds of miles to the nearest abortion clinic, wait 72 hours after an initial consultation to have the procedure, and look at an ultrasound and hear a detailed description of the fetus whether they want to or not. And 38 states have laws against "fetal homicide" that have, in some instances, resulted in women being prosecuted for having a miscarriage or obtaining abortion-inducing drugs on the Internet.
As abortion rights groups seized on Trump's comments to emphasize their point, the candidate tried to walk his statement back by saying abortion laws should remain exactly as they are. "At this moment, the laws are set," Trump said. "And I think we have to leave it that way."
But he only further alienated the anti-abortion movement, which is pushing for more and stronger laws limiting the procedure. “He has completely contradicted himself," said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony List, in a statement. "If this is his position, he has just disqualified himself as the GOP nominee."
Dannenfelser did not respond to a request for comment as to whether her group would still consider endorsing Trump in the general election.
Nance, who has endorsed Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in the primary, said that while she will never endorse Trump, she would still personally vote for him over Clinton. But it may be too difficult of a choice for other abortion opponents. Boston Magazine reported from the annual Massachusetts Citizens for Life conference this weekend that many anti-abortion activists "expressed deep frustration" with Trump and said they could not vote for him if he were the nominee.
Nance said she is particularly worried about how Trump's abortion comments will affect his support from conservative women. A recent CNN poll found that 73 percent of women -- including 39 percent of Republican women -- have unfavorable views of the candidate.
"At the end of the day, we're never going to support Hillary, but I do worry about women staying home because they don't like their choices," Nance said. "And I understand that. It's difficult."