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In a clip of an interview with MSNBC that aired Wednesday, Trump said even if abortion are banned, some women would access the procedure illegally.
"There has to be some form of punishment," he said in the excerpt. Asked what form of punishment he would advocate, Trump said, "That I don't know."
MSNBC is expected to air the rest of the interview later on Wednesday.
Trump's comments immediately unleashed a torrent of negative reactions, and his campaign emailed a statement to Reuters in which Trump moderated his view.
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"This issue is unclear and should be put back into the states for determination," Trump said in the statement.
The billionaire's rivals in the race for the Republican nomination presidential nomination say Trump is not conservative enough on issues such as abortion. They have also criticized him for comments that have offended women and minority groups.
"Of course women shouldn't be punished," rival candidate John Kasich, the governor of Ohio, told MSNBC. Kasich said he opposes abortion except in specific cases such as rape.
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"I think probably Donald Trump will figure out a way to say that he didn't say it or he was misquoted or whatever," Kasich said. "I don't think that's an appropriate response."
U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, the third candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, earlier this year released an ad saying voters could not trust Trump because he has not always opposed abortion.
"Don't overthink it: Trump doesn't understand the pro-life position because he's not pro-life," Cruz spokesman Brian Phillips wrote on Twitter on Wednesday.
Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, say women should be able to choose to have an abortion.
"Just when you thought it wouldn't get worse," Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, wrote on Twitter about Trump's remarks. "Horrific and telling."
Trump's insurgent campaign for the Republican nomination for the Nov. 8 election has alarmed many in the party establishment.
On Tuesday, Trump and Kasich abandoned pledges to support the party's eventual nominee, revealing the discord among Republicans. "If the nominee is somebody that I think is really hurting the country ... I can't stand behind them," Kasich said.
Cruz did not explicitly abandon the pledge but said Trump wasn't going to be the nominee.