NEW YORK (AP) — Only rarely has Donald Trump broached the topic of abortion during his presidential campaign. Twice, when he has done so, there has been stormy reaction.
Back in March, in an interview with MSNBC, Trump said women should face "some sort of punishment" if they had an abortion in the event the practice was outlawed. Anti-abortion leaders swiftly repudiated him, and he soon backtracked, saying doctors should be punished, but not the women getting abortions.
Last week, in the third and final presidential debate, Trump ignited another firestorm as he sought to undercut Hillary Clinton, his Democratic opponent, for her strong support for abortion rights.
"Based on what she's saying ... you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb on the ninth month on the final day," Trump said.
Again there was swift reaction, this time from doctors and abortion-rights supporters who said that scenario evoked by Trump doesn't happen.
"No doctor does abortions one or two or three days before term delivery. Ever," tweeted Dr. Jennifer Gunter, a California-based obstetrician-gynecologist. In a post on her blog, Gunter said the rare decisions to terminate a pregnancy in the ninth month involve severe fetal anomalies, not abortion of a normal pregnancy, and the termination might be accomplished by cesarean section or inducing labor.
Clinton, responding to Trump's "rip from the womb" comment, said, "That is not what happens in these cases."
"The kinds of cases that fall at the end of pregnancy are often the most heartbreaking, painful decisions for families to make," she said. "I do not think the U.S. government should be stepping in and making those most personal of decisions."
This time, however, anti-abortion leaders did not repudiate Trump — they welcomed his willingness to challenge Clinton.
"For the first time Hillary Clinton was pressed to own up to the fact that there is not one circumstance in which she would protect the right to life of an unborn child," said Marjorie Dannenfelser of the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group campaigning for Trump.
Back in March, Dannenfelser was among the many anti-abortion leaders who assailed Trump for suggesting that women who had abortions should be punished. The comment undercut the anti-abortion movement's long-evolving strategy of voicing empathy with women considering abortion.
But even as she expressed dismay, Dannenfelser held out the possibility of supporting Trump in a contest against a Democrat who supports abortion rights.
She and many other anti-abortion leaders are now backing Trump, in part because he has promised to fill Supreme Court vacancies with justices who would be open to overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that established a nationwide right to abortion.
Trump — who in the past supported abortion rights but now calls himself "pro-life" — has pledged to halt public funding of Planned Parenthood as long it continues to provide abortions along with other health services. And he has endorsed proposed federal legislation that would ban most abortions after 20 weeks on the disputed premise that a fetus can feel pain at that stage.
Abortions in the third trimester of pregnancy are relatively rare. According to federal data, about 91 percent of abortions occur in the first trimester and only 1.3 percent occur later than 21 weeks.
Most states have restrictions on abortions at that stage of pregnancy; seven states and the District of Columbia allow abortions until birth for any reason.
There are an estimated 1 million abortions a year in the U.S.