Several hours later -- after widespread condemnation from Trump's presidential rivals and even leading anti-abortion groups -- he walked back his remarks, releasing a statement in which he said that women who obtain abortions are victims and that doctors who perform the service are the ones who should be punished.
"If Congress were to pass legislation making abortion illegal and the federal courts upheld this legislation, or any state were permitted to ban abortion under state and federal law, the doctor or any other person performing this illegal act upon a woman would be held legally responsible, not the woman," Trump said. "The woman is a victim in this case as is the life in her womb. My position has not changed -- like Ronald Reagan, I am pro-life with exceptions."
The controversy also comes less than a week before Wisconsin Republicans vote in the state's primary, a contest both Trump and his rivals have portrayed as pivotal in the road to the GOP presidential nomination.
Trump's initial comments on Wednesday came after a lengthy exchange with MSNBC host Chris Matthews, who pressured the Republican to give a yes or no answer to the question, "should abortion be punished."
"There has to be some form of punishment," Trump said during a televised town hall event.
"For the woman?" Matthews asked, to which Trump replied, "Yes."
Trump declined to specify how women should be punished if they underwent an illegal abortion.
The Republican front-runner also conceded that outlawing the practice would lead some women to seek out abortions illegally.
"Well, you go back to a position like they had where they would perhaps go to illegal places, but we have to ban it," Trump said during the town hall.
Trump had previously declined to answer the question about what penalties he would support for women who undergo abortions or doctors who perform them.
"I just don't want to talk about that right now," Trump said during a news conference January in Iowa. "Everybody knows my views and I think my views are very plain," Trump said.
Fire from anti-abortion groups
Throughout his campaign, Trump has faced questions about the authenticity of his position on abortion. He said he was "pro-choice in every respect"
in a 1999 interview, though he said he hated the "concept of abortion."
His comments on Wednesday appeared to be the latest in Trump's persistent efforts to court the support of socially conservative voters. But his efforts backfired as three leading anti-abortion groups swiftly criticized Trump's comments.
March for Life released the toughest statement of the three groups, calling Trump's remarks "completely out of touch with the pro-life movement."
"Being pro-life means wanting what is best for the mother and the baby. Women who choose abortion often do so in desperation and then deeply regret such a decision. No pro-lifer would ever want to punish a woman who has chosen abortion. This is against the very nature of what we are about," the president of the group's education and defense fund, Jeanne Marcini, said in a statement.
The National Right to Life Committee noted in a statement that it has never supported penalties against women who undergo abortions.
The Susan B. Anthony List chalked up Trump's comments to his recent opposition to abortion rights and said punishments should only be dished out to "the abortionist."
"As a convert to the pro-life movement, Mr. Trump sees the reality of the horror of abortion -- the destruction of an innocent human life -- which is legal in our country up until the moment of birth," the group's president, Marjorie Dannenfelser, said in a statement.
Trump's views of women scrutinized
Trump and his campaign increasingly have been under the microscope for their treatment of women.
Trump has faced constant criticism throughout his campaign for comments he has made about women's looks -- from Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly
to his former GOP opponent Carly Fiorina
-- and he has also taken flack in the last week for launching an attack
against Sen. Ted Cruz's wife.
After a super PAC opposed to Trump and unaffiliated with Cruz's campaign posted an ad featuring a nude photo of Trump's wife, the Republican front-runner threatened to "spill the beans" about Cruz's wife and tweeted an unflattering photo of Cruz's wife alongside a picture of his own wife. The Texas senator held a campaign event in Wisconsin Wednesday morning, appearing alongside his wife and Fiorina in which he pitched himself to women voters.
The scrutiny over the Trump campaign's treatment of women continued this week after Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was charged
Tuesday with simple battery for grabbing a female reporter's arm after a news conference in Florida earlier this month.
And earlier Wednesday, 16 female conservatives called on Trump to fire Lewandowski
Trump didn't mention the abortion controversy while speaking at a campaign event here on Wednesday, shortly after the comments were made public. But, regarding the charges against Lewandowski, Trump said, "Nobody's a bigger supporter of women than Donald Trump."
Standing out among Republicans
While Trump has maintained throughout his presidential campaign that he is steadfastly opposed to abortion, the Republican front-runner has also sought to distinguish himself from his GOP opponents on women's issues.
As his GOP rivals for the presidency joined Republicans in Congress in calling for the federal government to defund Planned Parenthood following allegations over the summer that the group illegally sold aborted fetal tissue, Trump has insisted that the organization provides essential services to "millions of women."
Trump has called for the group to cease its abortion services -- which are not funded by federal tax dollars -- to continue receiving federal funding.
Still, Trump's comments Wednesday also drew a swift rebuke from Planned Parenthood's advocacy arm, which called Trump's comments "flat-out dangerous."
"Women's lives are not disposable. There's nothing else to say, as Donald Trump's remarks today have said it all," Executive Vice President of Planned Parenthood Action Fund Dawn Laguens said in a statement.
Condemnation from rivals
The town hall comments were met with immediate criticism from presidential contenders on both sides of the aisle.
Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton retweeted an NBC News reporter, adding, "Just when you thought it couldn't get worse. Horrific and telling. -H."
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders tweeted, "Your Republican frontrunner, ladies and gentlemen. Shameful."
Trump's Republican opponents quickly responded as well.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich told MSNBC, "Of course, women shouldn't be punished for having an abortion."
And Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said Trump's comment "demonstrated that he hasn't seriously thought through the issues, and he'll say anything just to get attention."
"On the important issue of the sanctity of life, what's far too often neglected is that being pro-life is not simply about the unborn child; it's also about the mother -- and creating a culture that respects her and embraces life," Cruz said. "Of course we shouldn't be talking about punishing women; we should affirm their dignity and the incredible gift they have to bring life into the world."