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.

Commentary Politics

The Loss of Our Sons and Daughters Is More Than a Political Moment

Toni Bond Leonard

We must bear witness to support the Black mothers who shared their stories of losing children to state and racial violence at the Democratic National Convention. But bearing witness means demanding justice and policy change.

When I watched the Mothers of the Movement—a group of Black mothers of slain children—take center stage at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) last week, I saw Black women “making a way out of no way.” We turn our suffering and righteous indignation into agency.

Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother, talked about being thrust into the spotlight while grappling with her teenage son’s killing. Geneva Reed-Veal, the mother of Sandra Bland, began her remarks by acknowledging God’s greatness and how the mothers’ presence at the DNC was itself proof of that greatness. She then related the horrific details of her 28-year-old daughter being found hanging in a Texas jail cell after a possibly unlawful traffic stop in 2015. She called it the worst nightmare anyone could imagine.

But as eloquent and moving as the Mothers of the Movement were, their narratives were treated as a political moment that demonstrated mostly that Hillary Clinton had successfully campaigned to garner the backing of these mothers who are surviving reproductive loss. As I watched Reed-Veal fight back tears, I wondered what type of strength it takes to find peace with such a loss.

The lives of women such as Fulton and Reed-Veal—and those of their deceased children and their remaining families—matter more than a fleeting appearance in Philadelphia. While Clinton is apparently able to imagine what it means to lose a child and talk about that on the campaign trail, it is different to live with the immeasurable weight of losing a loved one, especially when it was due to systemic racism.

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In the Christian tradition, we remember Jesus’ suffering on the cross. And the mothers’ words call us to bear witness to police violence and the women who suffer irreparable reproductive loss. But bearing witness requires us to do more than see and hear about atrocities. We must also demand justice.

Reproductive justice theory holds that women have the human rights to bear children (or not), and to parent with the necessary social and economic supports so that their children not only survive, but thrive. Thriving means access to safe affordable housing, quality education, a living wage, healthy foods, and health care that is grounded in prevention and healing. It means living without fear of violence, especially from the very state authorities entrusted with protecting us.

In Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, womanist theologian Delores Williams discusses Black women and a particular type of “surrogacy.” She uses the biblical story of Egyptian slave Hagar, who became Abraham’s concubine to bear him the son that his wife, Sarah, had not. Hagar’s body—and her child—were not her own. Williams argues that Black women have long been forced to step into others’ roles—raising white women’s children during and after slavery, for one—and that surrogacy has been exploitative.

We stand now in a moment where Black women are still surrogates. Their children are not their own, used as human targets by law enforcement and racists to act out their hatred of Black people. And even as the Mothers of the Movement struggle to grieve, their pain plays out in public.

To honor and address their pain, we must listen compassionately to Black people who say “Black Lives Matter.” The shootings of police officers cannot be used to scapegoat the legitimate concerns and demands of Black Lives Matter, which push us to confront historical and ongoing violence against Black Americans. Those urgent cries must fall on ears ready to understand the long history of our lives not mattering in this country. Those cries come from the collective memory of enslaved Black bodies, especially Black mothers forced to bear children to gratify economic greed, and firsthand contemporary experience.

Political candidates must also do more than just listen to the heartrending stories. They must also put forth concrete legislation to address the structural inequality behind racial profiling and the murders of Black people.

While Clinton’s platform includes ending gun violence and building trust between communities and police, what we did not hear at the DNC was how she would advance policies that would prevent the tragic reproductive loss that the Mothers of the Movement now know.

Her platform sounds progressive, but I cannot help but remember her racially coded comments in support of the 1994 Violent Crime Control Act: that youth in gangs “are often the kinds of kids that are called ‘super-predators.’ No conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.”

Typically, dogs are brought to heel so that they walk close to or follow their owners. An unconscious, unfortunate choice of wording, perhaps? Still, the anti-poor legislation passed during her husband’s administration, and which she supported, has created and worsened conditions that shove poor families, disproportionately families of color, further into poverty.

In this watershed moment, radical accountability is needed if we’re to stem the use of deadly force against Black people.

Our elected leaders can model accountability by admitting that their own policies or statements have fed the police and not hungry people. Quite frankly, Clinton’s support of the crime bill and of the federal welfare reform requires some meaningful and public repentance.

And that repentance has to be more than a moment at the DNC or any future political gathering, but a sincere strategy to correct the injustices that claimed the Mothers of the Movement’s children. This is what it means to bear witness.

Roundups Politics

The House Freedom Fund Bankrolls Some of Congress’ Most Anti-Choice Candidates

Ally Boguhn

With the 2016 election cycle underway, the political action committee seems to be working tirelessly to ensure the House Freedom Caucus maintains a radical anti-choice legacy.

In its short existence, the House Freedom Caucus (HFC) has made a name for itself through endless efforts to push Congress further to the right, particularly when it comes to reproductive health. Now with the 2016 election cycle underway, the caucus’ political action committee, the House Freedom Fund, seems to be working just as tirelessly to ensure the caucus maintains a radical anti-choice legacy.

Since its founding by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) in January 2015, the group of ultra-conservative lawmakers that make up the caucus has ballooned from just nine members to at least 36 members, as of October 2015, who have confirmed their own inclusion—though the group keeps its official roster secret. These numbers may seem small, but they pack a punch in the House, where they have enough votes to block major legislation pushed by other parts of the Republican party.

And now, the group is seeking to add to its ranks in order to wield even more power in Congress.

“The goal is to grow it by, and I think it’s realistic, to grow it by 20 to 30 members,” Rep. Matt Salmon (R-AZ), one of HFC’s founding members, told Politico in April. “All new members.”

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While the caucus itself reportedly does not endorse candidates, its unofficial PAC has already thrown money behind defending the seats of some of the group’s most notoriously anti-choice members, as well as a few new faces.

According to OpenSecrets.org, the Center for Responsive Politics’ campaign finance database, thus far in 2016, the House Freedom Fund has invested in seven congressional candidates currently vying to keep a seat in the House of Representatives: Rep. Rod Blum (R-IA), Rep. Dave Brat (R-VA), Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS), Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), Rep. Scott Desjarlais (R-TN), Rep. Scott Garrett (R-NJ), and Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ). The PAC’s website also highlights two candidates hoping to move from their state legislatures to the House: Republican Indiana state senator Jim Banks and Georgia state Senator Mike Crane. The PAC is also backing the Republican candidate for Florida’s 2nd Congressional District, Mary Thomas; and Republican candidate for North Carolina’s 13th Congressional District, Ted Budd.

Rep. Warren Davidson (R-OH), who won a special election in early June to replace former House speaker John Boehner, also received funding from the PAC. He joined the House Freedom Caucus that same week.

The Republican Party actively works to deny access to virtually all forms of reproductive health care, so it is not surprising that the candidates supported by the House Freedom Fund, whose confirmed members are all members of the GOP, share similarly radical views on reproductive rights and health.

Here are some of the House Freedom Fund’s most alarming candidates:

Rep. Rod Blum

Rep. Blum, a freshman congressman from Iowa, considers his opposition to reproductive choice one of the “cornerstones” of his campaign. “It is unconscionable that government would aid in the taking of innocent life. I strongly oppose any federal funding for abortion and I will vote against any of our tax dollars flowing to groups who perform or advocate abortions on demand,” asserts Blum’s campaign site. The Hyde Amendment already bans most federal funding for abortion care.

Blum spent much of his first year in the House attempting to push through a series of anti-choice bills. The representative co-sponsored the medically unsupported Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would have enacted a federal ban on abortion at or beyond 20 weeks of pregnancy, in January 2015. He signed on as a co-sponsor for the failed Life at Conception Act, a so-called personhood measure that would have granted legal rights to fetuses and zygotes, thus potentially outlawing abortion and many forms of contraception, in March of that year. That July, Blum co-sponsored the Defund Planned Parenthood Act of 2015, which would have stripped the reproductive health organization of all federal funding for one year so that Congress could investigate it in the wake of the Center for Medical Progress’ (CMP) discredited videos smearing the provider. 

Blum’s co-sponsorship of anti-choice legislation was accompanied by a long series of like-minded votes throughout 2015, such as a January vote in favor of the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act and Abortion Insurance Full Disclosure Act of 2015, which, among other things, would have made the Hyde Amendment’s annually renewed ban on most federal funding for abortion care permanent. He also voted to block Washington, D.C.’s Reproductive Health non-discrimination law, and in favor of a measure allowing states to exclude from Medicaid funding any health provider that provided abortions, as well as other anti-choice measures.

Blum’s brief time in Congress has been marked by such extremism that Emily’s List, an organization that works to elect pro-choice women, put Blum on their “On Notice” list in July 2015, signaling their intention to prioritize unseating the Iowa Representative. “In less than five months into the 114th Congress, we have seen Representative Blum lead the crusade to restrict women’s access to healthcare, most notably when he cosponsored a national abortion ban,” explained the organization in a press release on its decision to target Blum. “It’s clear that Congressman Blum is more focused on prioritizing an extreme ideological agenda over enacting policies that benefit more women and families in Iowa’s First Congressional District.”

Rep. Dave Brat

Rep. Dave Brat gained notoriety for his win against incumbent representative and then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in 2014, a victory considered one of “the biggest political upset[s] in recent memory.” Like many of his HFC colleagues, Brat has co-sponsored several pieces of anti-choice legislation, including the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act in 2015 and the Conscience Protection Act of 2016, which claimed to “protect” against “governmental discrimination against providers of health services” who refuse to provide abortion care. Brat’s voting record in Congress earned him a 100 percent rating from the National Right to Life Committee.

In April of this year, the Virginia representative signed on to a letter with Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and other anti-choice legislators, such as House Freedom Fund candidate Rep. Meadows expressing “serious concerns” about the Food and Drug Administration’s decision to update the label of abortion drug mifepristone to bring it in line with scientific research and evidence-based medicine. Though medication abortions are safe and result in complications in fewer than 0.4 percent of patients, the lawmakers nonetheless claimed that the regulation change could be dangerous, noting that the drug was originally approved during the Clinton administration and demanding a list of information about it.

In the wake of the deadly shooting at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood facility in November, when the alleged shooter parroted the same violent rhetoric about the reproductive health organization popularized by the CMP’s discredited videos, many in Congress called for the panel investigating Planned Parenthood to be disbanded and for lawmakers to distance themselves from the videos. Brat, however, saw no reason the anti-choice violence should affect the conservative crusade to shut down access to reproductive health care. “Principles are principles,” Brat said at the time according to the Huffington Post. “They don’t change on a news cycle.”

Rep. Tim Huelskamp

Kansas Rep. Tim Huelskamp has been an anti-choice advocate since graduate school, when, according to the biography provided on his website, he was “active in assisting women in crisis pregnancies” while working toward a doctoral degree at American University. His advocacy continued as he made his way to Congress, eventually leading him to become the congressional “Pro-Life Caucus” whip.

Though he has cast plenty of anti-choice votes, the congressman’s most notable moment when it comes to reproductive rights may be a 2012 speech on the House floor, in when he compared abortion to slavery and accused Planned Parenthood and the Obama administration of being racist. “Perhaps the biggest war against our liberties is the war that is being waged against those that are not here today, the unborn,” claimed Huelskamp. “Besides slavery, abortion is the other darkest stain on our nation’s character and this president is looking for every way possible to make abortion more available and more frequent. And he wants you to pay for it. Even if you disagree with it.”

Huelskamp went on to falsely accuse Planned Parenthood of targeting people of color. “I am the adoptive father of four children, each of them either Black, Hispanic, Native American, and I am incensed that this president pays money to an entity that was created for the sole purpose of killing children that look like mine; a racist organization and it continues to target minorities for abortion destruction,” said the congressman. “Shame on this president and shame on that party.”

It wouldn’t be the last time Huelskamp exploited race in order to promote his anti-choice agenda. In 2015, the Kansas Representative lashed out at those who accepted awards from Planned Parenthood, tweeting that they were supporting a “racist” agenda.

Rep. Mark Meadows

Rep. Mark Meadows, who has a 100 percent rating from the National Right to Life Committee, co-sponsored anti-choice measures such as the House’s 2015 fetal pain bill, the 2015 Life at Conception Act, and the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act of 2016 (PRENDA). He also once badgered a pregnant doctor testifying during a House committee hearing about the importance of offering maternity coverage through the Affordable Care Act. However, the congressman’s recent vendetta against Planned Parenthood stands out the most.

In July 2015, in the wake of CMP’s deceptively edited videos, Meadows latched onto the discredited films in order to justify defunding Planned Parenthood. “In addition to cutting funding for abortion providers, I strongly urge Congress to investigate the legality of the practices engaged in by Planned Parenthood,” said Meadows at the time.

In September, as Congress faced the looming threat of a possible government shutdown if they didn’t pass a budget bill, Meadows exploited the opportunity to push for Planned Parenthood to be defunded, no matter the cost. With the South Carolina congressman leading the charge, pressure from conservatives to pull funding for the reproductive health-care provider played a role in prompting then-House Speaker John Boehner to resign his position. Meadows was a co-sponsor of the Defund Planned Parenthood Act of 2015, which passed in the House as part of a compromise to narrowly escape the shutdown. 

But Meadows’ quest to attack Planned Parenthood didn’t end there. In September, the congressman also participated in the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s hearing to “examine the use of taxpayer funding” by Planned Parenthood and its affiliates, a sham hearing used by the GOP to repeatedly push misinformation about the organization.

Rep. Scott Desjarlais

Rep. Scott Desjarlais, a medical doctor, is perhaps best known for his attempt to pressure his patient, with whom he was having an affair, into having an abortion when she became pregnant. While the congressman has repeatedly run on his anti-abortion credentials, his divorce papers also revealed he had supported his wife in having two abortions. Politico‘s Chas Sisk labeled DeJarlais  “the biggest hypocrite in Congress.”

Desjarlais made headlines again in 2015 for voting for a later abortion ban. A spokesperson for the Tennessee Republican told the Times Free Press that the vote was in accordance with the congressman’s record:

“Congressman DesJarlais was proud to vote in favor of this legislation,” said his spokesman Robert Jameson, who added that DesJarlais has maintained a “100 percent pro-life voting record” during his five years in Congress and “has always advocated for pro-life values.”

Indiana State Sen. Jim Banks

Indiana state Sen. Jim Banks (R-Columbia City) is one of the few candidates backed by the House Freedom Fund that has yet to win federal office, but his time in the state legislature has given him more than ample opportunity to demonstrate his opposition to reproductive health and rights.

Banks’ campaign website highlights the candidate’s “pro-life” position as a key issue for his race for the House, providing an extensive record of his anti-choice credentials and claiming that he is “running for Congress so that northeast Indiana continues to have a strong voice for innocent lives in Washington, D.C.” That page includes a laundry list of campaign promises, including amending the U.S. Constitution to give a fetus legal human rights, which could outlaw abortion and many forms of contraception; banning federal funding for abortion, though such a ban already exists; eliminating federal funding for any organization that performs abortions domestically or abroad; and opposing any change to the Republican platform on abortion.

The state senator’s site goes on to suggest that “it has been far too long since the Supreme Court discovered that women have a ‘right’ to have an abortion,” lamenting that much of the anti-choice movement’s work to shutter access to abortion in state legislatures hasn’t been replicated on a federal level and promising to address the issue if elected.

Included in his anti-choice resumé is a note that both Banks and his wife have been working in the movement to oppose choice since graduating college, when the two joined Focus on the Family, an organization that has spent millions of dollars promoting its extreme agenda, even devoting $2.5 million to run an anti-abortion ad during the 2010 Super Bowl. The two also worked together on the Allen County Right to Life Board of Directors, and Banks’ wife, Amanda, remains the board’s vice president.

But most extreme of all was the legislation Banks spearheaded while in the state legislature, which included several targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) measures. Most recently the state senator sponsored Indiana’s SB 144, a bill that would modify the state’s 20-week abortion ban to outlaw the procedure once a fetal heartbeat could be detected, typically around six weeks’ gestation. In a statement on the bill, Banks claimed the law was needed because it “would protect unborn Hoosiers’ right to life and also includes important women’s health protections.”

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