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Story highlights

Donald Trump on Wednesday scrambled to clarify his position on abortion

He ignited a firestorm of criticism after he initially said women who obtain abortions should be punished

(CNN) —  

Donald Trump scrambled to clarify his position on abortion Wednesday after he said women who undergo the procedure should face “some form of punishment” should the practice be outlawed.

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.

READ: Trump’s bizarre war on women

“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.”

READ: What we’ve learned about Trump’s world view

“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.

READ: Republican candidates back off pledges to support nominee

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.”