DENVER — Colorado Senate President Bill Cadman’s fetal homicide bill never stood a chance of making it through the legislature, despite being propelled by public outrage generated by a grisly crime that Cadman said inspired him to introduce it. His “Offenses against Unborn Children” act died in a House committee Monday afternoon on a party-line vote.
Colorado is a strong pro-choice state, but for a decade lawmakers and voters here have had to beat back repeated attempts to outlaw abortion.
Fears that Cadman’s bill was yet another such attempt doomed the bill from the start, especially since its supporters made no real effort to address concerns that it would introduce the hardline anti-abortion “personhood” legal concept into state statutes.
No one expected the bill to make it out of the Democratic-controlled State Affairs committee even before Monday’s hearing began. Chairwoman Su Ryden, a Democrat from Aurora, did little to change those expectations.
“New rules,” she said, announcing that public testimony would be limited to 30 seconds per witness and that committee members would not be allowed to ask questions.
Ryden was in a hurry. The legislative session ends Wednesday at midnight. Bills were stacked up on the committee schedule. Most of the witnesses had testified on the bill in a previous hearing. It was all over relatively quickly.
In Colorado, the “personhood” movement has proposed anti-abortion constitutional amendments for years. The language of the proposals varies slightly from one year to the next, but it always defines a person as entitled to full legal rights beginning at the moment of conception. That’s the earliest stage in a pregnancy, the instant the sperm meets the nucleus of the egg and chromosomes mix.
In the moment when conception is happening, of course, the people involved know little about it, which is what makes personhood hard to accept for the majority of voters on a practical level. Sometimes the measures have failed even to make the ballot in Colorado. And, when they have made the ballot, they have been defeated mostly by large margins.
When lawmakers from conservative districts introduce personhood bills, as they do now annually, the bills last long enough to make headlines but then die swiftly in a welter of opposition-testimony about how personhood could outlaw popular forms of contraception, subject pregnant women to criminal scrutiny, tank fertility research and treatment and draw lawsuits personhood supporters couldn’t hope to win.
Cadman said his bill was inspired by a grisly assault in Longmont. In March, Michelle Wilkins was attacked, her womb cut open and the seven-month-old fetus inside removed. The assailant allegedly wanted to kidnap the fetus and pass it off as her own. But it reportedly died before ever taking a breath.
When he introduced his bill, Cadman said it was designed to bring justice for the fetus, which was named Aurora. He explained that because the fetus was never alive in the world it could not be murdered, as state law stands.
But Cadman’s bill was written by anti-abortion group Americans United for Life, and it contained trademark personhood language. The bill defined a “person” as a human being including “an unborn child at every stage of gestation from conception until live birth” for use in cases of assault and murder.
Democrats in the Senate tried to amend the bill. They wanted to strip out the personhood language. Cadman never budged.
When it was clear the bill was going to die in committee on Monday, supporters responded with flashes of outrage.
“This bill is meant to respond to a tragedy,” said Mike Norton, a lawyer for the Alliance Defending Freedom, a national Christian lobbying group. “People know that what happened in Longmont was murder.”
Fourth District D.A. Dan May was more direct about how he thought the majority committee members would come to regret their votes. He talked about the 2002 high-profile murder in California of Laci Peterson, who was seven-and-a-half months pregnant when she was killed by her husband.
“If you want to go back to your constituents and say ‘Laci Peterson’s child wasn’t murdered,’ then vote against this bill.”
But opponents remained as wary of the bill as they were the day it was introduced.
Denise Maes, public policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union, explained that bills like Cadman’s often come on the heels of terrible crimes and amid cries for justice.
“But this bill would not even address the crime in Longmont. There was no intent to hurt the fetus,” she said. “If this is not a front-door entrance to personhood, it’s certainly a side entrance.”
Committee member Mike Foote, a Democrat from Lafayette, sponsored the 2013 Crimes against Pregnant Women act now being used to prosecute the Longmont assailant. He explained that he made sure his law would provide stiff sentences for people who cause harm to pregnant women and their fetuses but that it would not include personhood language.
“The law is working,” he said. “It has been used ten times in the state since it passed. It’s a serious law with serious consequences for criminals. But it was carefully crafted to make certain it could not be used to prosecute pregnant women.”
Foote added that the federal law many supporters of Cadman’s bill say it is modeled after also contains very specific guardrails to protect women and doctors from prosecutors.
“In writing the exceptions in this bill, why didn’t you follow the language in these other laws?” he asked. “This bill takes us back to the 2000s all over again with its personhood language.”
Right before calling the vote, Ryden said she thought Colorado law did well in meeting the crime in Longmont, at least as well as any law could.
“I sympathize with your motives in bringing this bill,” she said. “But I believe we have strong laws on the books. [The criminal] in Longmont will receive a hundred-year sentence. That’s substantial. I believe our laws will do justice.”
Photo by Frank de Kliene