The Crimes of our Mothers: The True Intent of the Unborn Victims of Violence Acts

Amie Newman

Are pregnant women safe in Kansas? The Wheat State is the thirtieth one to sign into law an "Unborn Victims of Violence Act" wiping out existing laws that protect pregnant women, making it easier to prosecute the women themselves.

On Wednesday, May 9, 2007, Kansas became the 30th state to sign into law an Unborn Victims of Violence Act (UVVA), making it a crime to intentionally harm a fetus (an addendum that champions the fetus while entirely discounting the life and health of the pregnant woman). The legislation (called "Alexa's Law") allows for prosecutors to charge an alleged perpetrator with only one crime now — intentionally harming a fetus completely ignoring the pregnant woman. There can be no doubt that legislating punishment for crimes against pregnant women, in an attempt to provide a modicum of justice for the families of these victims, is a priority for many citizens of this country. So what is the goal with this particular law and similar ones enacted around the country? Is it to reduce the number of violent crimes against pregnant women and their children yet to be born? Is it to bring violent criminals to justice?

In fact, in Kansas, this law repeals statutes already on the books that criminalize injury inflicted upon a pregnant woman. Twelve years ago, Kansas enacted "Motherhood Protection" laws (K.S.A. 21-3440 and K.S.A. 21-3441) that, according to the reproductive justice advocacy organization ProKanDo, "recognize the particularly heinous nature of crimes against pregnant women by providing separate criminal charges for those who interrupt a pregnancy in the commission of a crime." These laws were put into place over a decade ago as the result of anti-choice advocates who, at the time, desperately wanted a UVVA in Kansas. What they got instead were laws that heightened the consequences of intentionally harming pregnant women, recognizing the atrocious nature of this type of crime, without defining fetuses as full people.

Fast forward to 2007 when anti-choice advocates in Kansas were finally able to pass the full UVVA that mirrored their ideology while serving their political purposes. Kansas' law, according to Julie Burkhardt, executive director of ProKanDo, "contains extreme language when talking about life beginning at fertilization or conception — similar to about fifteen other states' UVV laws." So what reason can there be for repealing legislation already in place that ensures that perpetrators of violence against pregnant women will be prosecuted uniquely for their crimes? And why did the law pass now — with a pro-choice Governor and five failed attempts in previous years? There may be many reasons; though none have anything to do with justice, protection or concern for the victims of violent crimes.

The passage of the Unborn Victims of Violence Act in Kansas was, at least in part, the result of a political ploy used by anti-choice strategists who took advantage of a horrible murder that occurred in 2006. Chelsea Brooks, a
fourteen-year-old who was pregnant with a daughter she planned to name "Alexa" (hence the name of the law), was murdered by a contract killer her boyfriend had hired.
This horrendous case provided anti-choice activists (at the family's side just twenty-four hours after the body was discovered according to Julie Burkhardt) the opportunity they needed to pass a law that, according to them "provided protection for the unborn child" which was not specifically written into previous "Motherhood Protection" bills. Julie Burkhardt was not surprised, "While we were talking the whole time about violence against women, and protecting the baby by protecting the women – they were talking only about protecting the life of the fetus."

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Now, however, Kansas and twenty-nine other states in this country have enacted laws that do precious little to protect pregnant women and their children. "More than 30 states have laws similar to UVVA (Unborn Victims of Violence Act), and violence against pregnant women in those states has not stopped or even been minimized," Burkhardt states. In fact, paradoxically, these laws are being used against pregnant women and their children to criminally punish them. According to the National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW), in South Carolina which "ranks number one in murders of women by men and last in the number of state dollars spent on drug treatment, the primary targets of the state's fetal protection laws are pregnant women and new mothers who need drug treatment and mental health services."

Again, according to NAPW, that state's "feticide laws" have actually been used to arrest more than seventy women, including Regina McKnight who was actually convicted of murder when she delivered a stillborn baby, who were deemed to "pose a threat to fetal health and life for things they did or did not do during pregnancy." The number of men arrested under South Carolina's law? Two. Both were acquitted on technicalities.

Julie Burkhardt worries that Kansas could start to see similar situations, "We could start to see pregnant women being charged with endangering their own pregnancies. In Utah, Melissa Rowland was charged with murder because she didn't agree to a cesarean section when delivering her twin babies resulting in the death of one. We're seeing comparable cases in Oklahoma, Massachusetts, Florida and many other states as well."

And with a county prosecutor like Phil Kline, the ousted Attorney General, there is little doubt that opportunities will be seized to pursue prosecution under the Kansas UVV law.

Perhaps what is most disturbing about the steady stream of laws like these around the country is their insidiousness. Julie says, "With this type of bill, anti-choice advocates are hitting the spectrum of women's reproduction." While many reproductive justice advocates have wondered for years how anti-choice activists could scream so loudly for the punishment of abortion providers while somehow absolving women who access the abortions, it is no longer a puzzle.

"There is a real disconnect — when people think of reproductive health we think about abortion because that's the hot button issue. It drives voters. But it's also good for everybody to look at laws like Kansas' law – it doesn't just hurt women who need abortions but hurts women who want to continue their pregnancies and be mothers," Julie says. Women who get abortions are women who chose to become or are already mothers at different points in their lives. Laws like these punish women across the entire reproductive continuum.

ProKanDo attempted to rally opposition to the bill last year amongst the sexual assault and domestic violence communities in Kansas. But most organizations did not want to appear disrespectful to the family. Burkhardt is keenly aware that advocating against this type of legislation is not an easy task given that Brooks' family supported the legislation and has nothing but respect and empathy for the family of Chelsea and Alexa. For now, Julie Burkhardt and ProKanDo are working with Lynn Paltrow of NAPW to try and clean up and clarify some of the language in the bill — language that makes it too easy to prosecute anyone from the unlicensed midwifery community in that state, to pregnant women themselves. There is still hope that laws like these will be repealed someday and, if so, organizations like ProKanDo and NAPW are the ones to do it.

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