Fetal-Homicide Laws Stir Abortion Debate
By Kathleen Murphy, Staff Writer
The husband of Laci Peterson, the Modesto woman who disappeared last Christmas eve when she was eight months pregnant, has been charged with two counts of murder under California's fetal homicide law.
Peterson's body and that of her unborn son Connor were found this month along the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay. Prosecutors vow to seek the death penalty for Scott Peterson.
But there would be no double murder charge if a pregnant woman was killed in one of the 16 states without a fetal homicide law -- Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Montana, New Jersey, Oregon, Texas, Vermont, West Virginia, Wyoming.
State fetal homicide laws, which exclude legal abortions, vary widely and have been an issue in the abortion debate. Anti-abortion groups promote the laws, saying fetuses should be recognized as living human beings. But abortion rights groups said the legislation endangers women's rights by reinforcing claims of fetal rights in the law.
Passage of a state fetal homicide law often follows a high-profile case that causes public outrage. Vicki Soto of North Platte, Neb., was 8 1/2 months pregnant when her throat was slashed and her legs were severed below the knees in December 2001. She was killed, and the baby died in utero. Last year, Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns signed a measure that made Nebraska one of 27 states to criminalize killing a fetus.
Idaho last year enacted "Noah's Law" after a pregnant 16-year-old Lisa Smith suffered a beating that caused her baby to be stillborn.
Seven statesIndiana, Iowa, Kansas, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Virginia-- add to the length of a prison sentence for conduct that terminates pregnancies or causes miscarriages.
No states have passed fetal homicide measures this year, and a federal bill hasn't gone anywhere. The Unborn Victims of Violence Act, introduced in January by U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, and pushed by anti-abortion groups, would give an embryo legal rights by making it an additional offense to kill or injure a fetus during a federal crime.
Kentucky, Montana and West Virginia lawmakers defeated fetal homicide legislation this year, said Sondra Goldschein, state strategies attorney for the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, which opposes the laws. Fetal homicide bills also have been introduced in Connecticut, Hawaii, New York, Oregon, South Carolina and Texas, Goldschein said.
Varying state laws mean that violence against pregnant women is prosecuted differently state-to-state. In Missouri and Minnesota, a fetus is considered a living being at conception. In Georgia and Florida, a fetus gets legal protection after "quickening," when movement is first felt in the womb.
Utah's law covering the killing of an "unborn child" at any stage of development has survived a legal test. In January 2002, a state judge rejected defense attorneys' arguments that the fetusabout 14 weeks old when its mother was killedcould not have survived outside the womb and therefore wasn't a person.
Supporters of fetal homicide laws said they are needed to prosecute people who cause the death of an unborn child during violence against a pregnant woman. They also said the laws bolster the anti-abortion movement's argument against the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 1973 Roe v Wade decision that legalized abortions in the United States.
In a 1984 presidential election debate, Ronald Reagan cited the California "feticide" law as support for regarding abortion as murder, asking, "Isn't it strange that that same woman could have taken the life of her unborn child and it was abortion, not murder, but if somebody else does it, that's murder?"
Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right To Life Committee, said, "Justice demands that these crimes be addressed in an appropriate fashion, one that recognizes that they do involve two victims. [Opponents] don't like these laws because they might make people think in a way that might make them doubt whether the current abortion regime is a good one or whether we ought to move toward a legal structure that's more protective of the unborn child."
Abortion rights groups favor laws like North Carolina's which adds to the length of a prison sentence for assault if it causes a miscarriage.
ACLU's Goldschein said, "We recognize that a criminal act that causes a miscarriage is a tragedy that is worthy of redress, so we support laws that enhance a penalty when a criminal act results in harm to a pregnant woman and her pregnancy."