Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Love’s Labour Lost: An act of desperation leads to a bad law

There is a saying in the law that “hard cases make bad law”.  This tragic story is one of those hard cases:  Last year in June, a 17 year old girl, seven months pregnant, was told by her boyfriend, the baby’s father, that he would leave her if she didn’t get rid of the unborn child.  So, the girl gives 21 year old Aaron Harrison $150 to beat her up and induce a miscarriage; it didn’t work – the baby survived, was born in August and, fortunately, adopted. The girl pled no contest to a second-degree felony count of criminal solicitation to commit murder, but the charges were later dropped as a judge ruled that under state law, she could not be held criminally liable.  Harrison is serving a sentence for up to 5 years for the “attempted killing of an unborn child.”
Utah’s legislative response:  Pass a bill that charges pregnant women and girls with murder for having miscarriages caused by "intentional or knowing" acts; so that if this happens again, the 17 year mother could face a prison sentence of 15 years to life. (The Text of the Bill can be accessed here.)
But no one is addressing the underlying problem  -- Sure, there is plenty of blame to go around – the pregnant minor, the baby’s father, the guy who agreed to beat her up – But there also lots of questions that need to be asked, such as “How could this have been prevented?”   Did the 17 year old or her boyfriend have sex education?  Did either of them have access to birth control?  Was the 17 year old aware that she had the right to a legal abortion?  Did her parents or the boy’s parents discuss alternatives with her?  Did ANYONE in the community discuss her options or offer her support? – Or did they figure that every seventeen year old was as mature as Ellen Page’s character in Juno and everything would be hunky dory? (They obviously haven’t watched Revolutionary Road)   As Lynn M. Paltrow, the executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, commented, how this happened is being obscured because of the sole focus on the baby; she asks “Why would a young woman get to a point of such desperation that she would invite violence against herself?”
According to the Guttmacher Institute, which advocates for sexual and reproductive health in the United States, 93 percent of all Utah counties have no abortion provider. And I would venture to guess that sex education and access to birth control is fairly limited where this happened. (Somebody, please correct me if I’m wrong)
Planned Parenthood Melissa Bird is concerned that the language of “intentional or knowing” is still problematic, leaving suspicion open to any miscarriage: “What happens to women who are in abusive relationships?" she asks. "What happens if a woman threatens to leave the abuser, falls down the stairs and loses the baby? What if the abuser beats the woman and causes a miscarriage? Could he turn her in? Who would the prosecutor believe? What happens if a drug addict who’s trying to get clean loses her baby? Will she be brought up on murder charges?” (full text accessible here)
If there is anything that approaches a consensus in the US on this topic, it is that is prevention of unwanted pregnancy is much better than abortion.  This law doesn’t consider that OR address the underlying problem – it doesn’t help women have control over their reproductive systems or help the unborn; it penalizes the mother for being desperate.
[Cross-posted on IEET’s blog]

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