Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDems win from coast to coast Falwell after Gillespie loss: 'DC should annex' Northern Virginia Dems see gains in Virginia's House of Delegates MORE sparked a firestorm on Wednesday when he said women should be punished for getting illegal abortions.

“There has to be some form of punishment,” the GOP presidential front-runner told MSNBC's Chris Matthews during a combative interview.

Matthews had asked Trump whether he would seek to ban abortion and how he would enforce such a policy.

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“The answer is that there has to be some form of punishment,” Trump said in the interview taped for a town hall forum airing later Wednesday.

“For the woman?” Matthews asked.

“Yeah, there has to be some form,” Trump responded.

Matthews pressed Trump repeatedly on abortion and to clarify his own stance.

“Should abortion be punished? This is not something you can dodge,” he asked Trump.

“Well, people in certain parts of the Republican Party, conservative Republicans, would say, ‘Yes, they should be punished,’ ” Trump responded.

Asked what a ban on abortion would entail, Trump said: “Well you know you’ll go back to a position like they had, where people will perhaps go to illegal places, but you have to ban it.”

Later on Wednesday, Trump sought to clarify his remarks, saying he would not seek to punish a woman for getting an abortion.

"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," he said in the statement. 

"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."

But Trump's rivals from both parties quickly seized on the controversy.

Democratic front-runner Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGOP rushes to cut ties to Moore Papadopoulos was in regular contact with Stephen Miller, helped edit Trump speech: report Bannon jokes Clinton got her ‘ass kicked’ in 2016 election MORE, in a tweet, called the initial comments "horrific and telling."

"Your Republican frontrunner, ladies and gentlemen. Shameful," tweeted Democratic candidate Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersWorld leaders reach agreement on trade deal without United States: report Sanders on Brazile revelations: DNC needs ‘far more transparency’ Sen. Warren sold out the DNC MORE.

Republicans, too, blasted the remarks, with some questioning Trump's anti-abortion credentials.

"Once again Donald Trump has demonstrated that he hasn’t seriously thought through the issues, and he’ll say anything just to get attention,” Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOvernight Finance: GOP criticism of tax bill grows, but few no votes | Highlights from day two of markup | House votes to overturn joint-employer rule | Senate panel approves North Korean banking sanctions GOP criticism of tax bill grows, but few ready to vote against it Anti-gay marriage county clerk Kim Davis to seek reelection in Kentucky MORE said in a statement.

“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," he continued.

"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."

"Don't overthink it: Trump doesn't understand the pro-life position because he's not pro-life," tweeted Brian Phillips, a top aide to Cruz, Trump's main GOP rival for the presidential nomination.

"Of course women shouldn't be punished," for having an abortion, John Kasich, another presidential contender, also told NBC.

Anti-abortion activists have long proposed punishing doctors and those who carry out the procedure instead of women who seek out abortions.

The controversy also highlights one of Trump's electoral vulnerabilities: his unpopularity among women could hurt him in a general election.

A recent CNN poll found that 73 percent of female voters in the United States view the front-runner unfavorably.

Abortion rights supporters were also quick to slam Trump for his remarks.

“Donald Trump is 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,” said Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, in a statement.

Abortion is frequently a thorny issue for Republican candidates. In 2012, then-Rep. Todd Akin, while running for a Senate seat in Missouri, said sexual assault victims wouldn't need abortions because "legitimate rape" couldn't cause pregnancy. His remarks gained national attention, and he lost his race.

The controversy also comes with the Trump campaign already under fire for an incident involving his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski. He was charged with battery Tuesday for allegedly grabbing the arm of a former Breitbart reporter, Michelle Fields, in an incident captured on tape.

Trump and his campaign have said they "wholeheartedly" support Lewandowski and pushed back on Fields's claims.

Trump has also faced charges of sexism on the campaign trail after a high-profile spat with Fox News host Megyn Kelly and for remarks critical of former GOP presidential candidate Carly Fiorina.

Updated at 6:16 p.m.