Readers’ view: Feticide laws are a step backward, not forward

Readers’ view: Feticide laws are a step backward, not forward

Crimes like last month’s gruesome attack on pregnant Longmont resident Michelle Wilkins and her 34-week fetus would shock and disturb anybody. Ms. Wilkins – whose fetus was literally ripped from her body – deserves to see her attacker punished.

Existing criminal laws can – and should – protect pregnant women and their fetuses from such violence. But the proposals by Colorado state Senate President Bill Cadman and others to extend homicide laws to cover killings like this one would expose pregnant women and their fetuses to more risk, not less.

Dozens of states around the nation have passed feticide laws in recent years.  Most of those laws were written in response to violent attacks like the one suffered by Ms. Wilkins and were aimed at protecting women and their fetuses from such harms. By treating the termination of a pregnancy as a separate crime against the fetus, these laws could undermine abortion rights.  But there is an even more urgent reason to strongly and vocally resist moves to pass a feticide law in Colorado. Once passed, such laws have consistently — and sometimes predominantly — been used against pregnant women themselves.

In state after state, women have been charged with feticide or other crimes based on bad birth outcomes they did not cause (such as stillbirths and miscarriages), medical choices they were legally entitled to make (such as refusal of Cesarean sections), and even accidents.

An Iowa woman was charged with attempted feticide after falling down stairs. A woman in Utah was charged with homicide when prosecutors alleged that she caused a stillbirth by delaying having a C-section for two weeks. In Indiana, Purvi Patel was sentenced to 20 years in prison for feticide, based on a finding that she had tried to end her own pregnancy.

A study by Lynn Paltrow and Jeanne Flavin published in 2013 reports that this criminalization of pregnant women happens disproportionately to women of color.

Do we really want vulnerable women locked up and Colorado families torn apart based on failure to follow a doctor’s “orders” or desperate efforts to terminate pregnancies?

An attack on a pregnant woman that not only harms her physically but also ends her wanted pregnancy clearly constitutes a different and arguably greater wrong than a similar attack on a non-pregnant woman. It’s hard to imagine a more horrific crime. But it’s counterproductive to address such acts by treating them as separate offenses against the fetus.

As the Colorado Legislature recognized when it passed the Crimes Against Pregnant Women Act in 2013, the law can punish such wrongs and vindicate the victims by treating these acts as crimes against the pregnant woman herself.

If Coloradans and the legislators who represent them really care about the autonomy of pregnant women and the well-being of the fetuses they carry, they won’t treat the brutal attack against Michelle Wilkins as an excuse to subject pregnant women to surveillance by state pregnancy police.

 

Photo credit: Scorpions and Centaurs, Creative Commons, via Flickr.

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About the Author

Nancy Ehrenreich

Nancy Ehrenreich, Professor of Law, University of Denver Sturm College of Law

1 Comment

  1. Ralph Dratman on said:

    The “feticide” conviction and sentence in Indiana are insane by any civilized standard. We all know that such prosecutions are the work of religious fanatics. They are motivated by the same kind of bizarre misogynistic ideas enforced by Muslim fanaticism in the Middle East, but in this case the enforcers call themselves Christian. Yet this is in no way Christian conduct. Christ, of course, preached that “he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Nothing could be more relevant today.

    I believe religious and cultural misogyny is the most important single world issue at the present time in our history, if only because it stops progress in so many other areas. We must end this “feticide” madness, immediately. Free Purvi Patel!

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