US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has backtracked after making controversial comments about abortion and a woman's right to choose. Having said women who have abortions that are illegal should be punished, he very quickly withdrew the claim and said only the doctors and others who helped them should face sanctions.

Chris Matthews of MSNBC asked the controversial billionaire if he believed women should be punished if the Republican party – which officially favours outlawing abortion – were in power. Trump replied: "There has to be some form of punishment."

Trump – who describes himself as "pro-life with exceptions" – then compounded the comments by saying that the man who impregnated a woman who had an illegal abortion should not face any punishment. His comments were condemned both by the Democrats and some Republicans.

Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton slammed her rival in a series of tweets. She said: "Just when you thought it couldn't get worse. Horrific and telling."

Jeanne Mancini, President of the March for Life Education and Defense Fund said: "Mr Trump's comment today is completely out of touch with the pro-life movement and even more with women who have chosen such a sad thing as abortion. No pro-lifer would ever want to punish a woman who has chosen abortion."

Appearing to realise he'd made an error and provided another example of what has been perceived in some quarters as misogyny, Trump released a statement contradicting his earlier comment. "The doctor or any other person performing this illegal act upon a woman would be held legally responsible, not the woman," Trump said in a statement.

He added: "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."

Abortion is an hotly debated topic in the US and any politician hoping to win an election must tread a careful path so as not to risk offending either pro-lifers or those who believe that only women can make such decisions about their own body. In managing to offend both sides, Trump has at least demonstrated a sort of balance. The fact he made such a volte-face at all shows how worried he is about how the comments will be received by voters.