Utah law potentially endangers mothers' rights
In May of last year, while in her seventh month of pregnancy, an unnamed 17-year-old Utah girl made a desperate and dangerous decision. After having been told by her boyfriend at the time that he would break up with her if she did not have an abortion, the girl offered to pay a man named Aaron Harrison $150 to physically assault her in hopes that she would miscarry her fetus. Harrison accepted the girl's proposal, reportedly taking her to the basement of his parents' house and brutally kicking her in the stomach over and over again. In the end, his attempts to terminate the pregnancy failed — the fetus survived the beating and was put up for adoption after being born in August. To answer the obvious question readers must be pondering, the girl likely took such drastic action — rather than simply going to an abortion clinic and having a legally-sanctioned procedure — because she was attempting to hide the pregnancy from her family. Since Utah law requires parental consent for minors to obtain abortions and also prohibits the practice after the 20th week of pregnancy (except in a few very extreme circumstances, such as if the mother's life or health is threatened or the baby is expected to be born with extreme defects), she could see no alternative course of action available.
According to CBS News, Harrison later pleaded guilty to second-degree felony attempted murder. But last October, "District Judge A. Lynn Payne instead sentenced him under Utah's anti-abortion statute, saying a charge of third-degree ‘attempted killing of an unborn child' better fit the facts of the case." He is currently serving up to five years in prison. The girl, on the other hand, pleaded no contest to a second-degree felony count of criminal solicitation to commit murder in June and was initially ordered by Juvenile Court Judge Larry Steele to be placed in the custody of the Utah Juvenile Justice Services until she turned 21. Judge Steele later altered his decision and ordered her release, ruling that "a woman who solicits or seeks to have another cause an abortion of her own unborn child cannot be criminally liable." The girl is currently seeking custody of her child.
After hearing about this regrettable incident, Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-UT, was, like myself, "absolutely outraged." However, unlike your trusty columnist, Wimmer was outraged not by the fact that his state's stringent abortion laws had driven a desperate, underage girl to risk personal injury and death to conceal her pregnancy from her family, but by the fact that she was not ultimately found guilty of any crime. Driven by his outrage, Wimmer introduced House Bill 12, which would "remove prohibitions against prosecution of a woman for killing an unborn child or committing criminal homicide of an unborn child." Having already passed both Houses of the Republican-controlled Utah State Legislature by wide margins (59-12 in the House and 24-4 in the Senate), the bill awaits the signature or veto of Republican Gov. Gary Herbert. If he does nothing, it will automatically become law on March 8. The language of the bill reads, in part, that "a person commits criminal homicide if [he or she] intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, with criminal negligence or acting with a mental state otherwise specified … causes the death of another human being, including an unborn child at any stage of its development."
As it stands, this bill presents a plethora of practical problems. The language defining what constitutes criminal homicide is far too vague, specifically with regard to the terms "recklessly" and "criminal negligence." If these terms are understood liberally, a woman could face prosecution if a miscarriage results from any act that is arguably reckless or negligent, such as failing to wear a seat belt, walking on ice, staying with an abusive partner or drinking a few too many glasses of wine. Further, nearly 20 percent of all pregnancies naturally end in miscarriage, meaning that women may face prosecution for something over which they had no control. There is also the issue of actually enforcing the law. Writing for TheStranger.com, Dan Savage observes: "If every miscarriage is a potential homicide, how does Utah avoid launching a criminal investigation every time a woman has a miscarriage? … And how is Utah supposed to know when a pregnant woman has had a miscarriage? You're going to have to create some sort of pregnancy registry to keep track of all those fetuses, Utah. Perhaps you could start issuing "conception certificates" to women who get pregnant? And then, if there isn't a baby within nine months of the issuance of a conception certificate, the woman could be hauled in for questioning and … indicted for criminal homicide, if it's determined that she intentionally or accidentally induced a miscarriage." At the end of the day, House Bill 12 is a poorly thought out, highly impractical piece of legislation created exclusively to deal with an incredibly rare occurrence. It will do nothing to reduce the number of abortions performed in Utah each year, but will potentially criminalize perfectly innocent behavior. As such, this bill, and those like it in other states, should be rejected as impractical and unjust.
Josh Baker is a Rutgers College senior majoring in sociology. He welcomes feedback at jbake74 -at- eden.rutgers.edu.