South Dakota Bill Could Legitimize Murder of Abortion Providers

Jodi Jacobson

If you had any doubt that we are moving toward a hate-filled, vigilante society, the answer is now clear.  Just two days after a female member of the Minuteman militia was convicted of murdering two innocent people--including a 9-year-old girl--and attempting to murder another, South Dakota legislators have introduced legislation making it legal to murder physicians who provide abortions.

If you had any doubt that we are moving toward a hate-filled, vigilante society, you now have an unequivocal answer.  Scott Roeder claimed justifiable homicide in the assassination of Dr. George Tiller in his church vestibule. Now, just two days after a female member of the Minuteman militia was convicted of murdering two innocent people–including a 9-year-old girl–while attempting to murder another, South Dakota legislators have introduced legislation that could de-criminalize the shooting of doctors, nurses, patients and volunteers at clinics providing abortion care.

Yup. You read that right. Elected officials–all of whom supposedly swore to uphold the law–are now encouraging people to literally take the law–as they understand it–into their own gun-owning hands.

The South Dakota bill, House Bill 1171 (the language of which is below), is an outgrowth of legislation that criminalizes harm to fetuses, a back-door route used by anti-choice forces for the past decade to criminalize abortion by conferring the rights of personhood on a fetus.

HB 1171 is one of three new bills being considered by the South Dakota legislature which seems, in “representing the people,” to have completely forgotten that those same South Dakotans have repeatedly rejected such measures at the ballot box. The other two gems? House Judiciary Committee HB1217 would institute forcible “counseling” at anti-choice clinics (as Tiffany Campbell reported earlier) and HB 1218, would criminalize all surrogacy in South Dakota. 

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“While each of these bills is absurd in their own right,” according to South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families, “they have one thing in common.”

They are all attempts to allow government intrusion in to personal decisions best made by a woman, her family and doctor. Yet, a few ideologues continue to press their personal agenda and interfere with private decisions.  This must stop.

Fetal homicide statutes have been on some state law books since the early seventies, according to Stateline.org, but many did not stipulate when a fetus became a person and potential crime victim, leaving courts to decide whether the death of an early-term fetus constituted a separate crime in maternal murder cases.  But states more recently began using “cookie-cutter language in fetal homicide laws, assigning legal rights to fetuses at any gestational age,” Sondra Goldschein, state strategies director for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Reproductive Freedom Project, told Stateline.org in 2006. 

Abortion rights advocates have long argued that these laws are part of a legal strategy to establish that life begins at conception. “It’s the elevation of the status of the fetus that is going to erode the right to access abortion,” Goldschein said. Anti-abortion groups promote the laws, saying fetuses should be recognized as living human beings.

South Dakota has three such laws.  One defines vehicular homicide, which includes the death of an unborn child, if for example, someone driving under the influence of alcohol or controlled substances “causes the death of another person, including an unborn child” (2006 HB 1163).  A second law defines fetal homicide as occurring when a person who knew, or reasonably should have known, “that a woman bearing an unborn child was pregnant and caused the death of the unborn child without lawful justification.”  And a third defines homicide as “murder in the first degree to include the death of a person or any other human being, including an unborn child.”

None of these laws distinguishes between wanted and unwanted or untenable pregnancies and all of them confer rights on fetuses apart from their mothers, thereby undermining the core foundation of a woman’s right to choose whether and when to continue a pregnancy to term and to bear and raise a child.

HB 1171 would expand the definition of “justifiable homicide” to killings that are intended to prevent harm to a fetus, which many feel would make it legal to kill doctors who perform abortions. It states:

Section 1. That § 22-16-34 be amended to read as follows:
    22-16-34. Homicide is justifiable if committed by any person while resisting any attempt to murder such person, or to harm the unborn child of such person in a manner and to a degree likely to result in the death of the unborn child, or to commit any felony upon him or her, or upon or in any dwelling house in which such person is.
    Section 2. That § 22-16-35 be amended to read as follows:
    22-16-35. Homicide is justifiable if committed by any person in the lawful defense of such person, or of his or her husband, wife, parent, child, master, mistress, or servant, or the unborn child of any such enumerated person, if there is reasonable ground to apprehend a design to commit a felony, or to do some great personal injury, and imminent danger of such design being accomplished.

In other words, it’s “justifiable homicide” if you feel justified in killing a doctor providing perfectly legal abortion care to a woman who has chosen to exercise her legal right not to carry a pregnancy to term, or who is physically unable to do so.  The bill passed out of committee on a nine-to-three party-line vote, and is expected to come up for a full vote on the floor of the state’s House of Representatives soon. It is cosponsored by 22 state representatives and four state senators. Unbelievable.

The original version of the bill did not include the language regarding the “unborn child,” according to state analysts, and was framed as a “simple clarification” of South Dakota’s justifiable homicide law. According to Kelsey of DakotaWomen.com, the bill:

[W]as recently amended from a sort of weird bill that I had hoped would result in gangs of armed pregnant women roughing up their homicidal baby daddies (remember, murder is the number one cause of death in pregnant women) to a piece of legislation that might inspire a horror movie called They Shoot Nurses, Don’t They?

The bill was “hoghoused –a term used in South Dakota for heavily amending legislation in committee, according to Kate Shepphard at Mother Jones—in a little-noticed hearing.”

Former DW contributor Laura elaborates:

House Judicial Committee testimony on the hoghouse amendment to SD HB 1171 (from those who knew the hoghouse was coming, the rest of us were caught pondering an entirely new bill and 10 seconds to respond = no hearing) makes clear that just allowing a pregnant mother to use protective deadly force, as read the original bill, isn’t acceptable to all the usual “prolife” proponents. They seek to codify murder of abortion providers (pharmacists? anyone driving you to the clinic?) by anyone the state defines as having an interest in that fetus. Don’t be suckered by rhetoric portending this just makes all the codes consistent. The Consistent Life Ethic crowd now values summary execution. Perhaps this isn’t so surprising in that they also support the life of a fetus over a mother’s life that requires abortion, that requires girls pregnant by their father/uncle/brother/rapist to have her little body and soul ripped apart by giving birth. “Consistent” is the messaging. Chilling and sadistic is the message.

That “Consistent Life Ethic” crowd referred to by Laura was represented by, according to Sheppard, “a parade of right-wing groups” including the Family Heritage Alliance, Concerned Women for America, the South Dakota branch of Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, and a political action committee called Family Matters in South Dakota, all of which testified in favor of the amended version of the law.

Now, at least we know where the so-called pro-life community stands on the murder of physicians, and we no longer have to listen to declarations of innocence in the face of violence.

Indeed, in light of the fact that these supporters of egg-as-person laws, abortion bans without exception for life, rape or incest, and other intrusions on the life and personhood of women were so involved in the “hog-housing” otherwise known as bull-dozing of this bill in a rushed hearing, and of the fact that there is no move afoot to clarify that the bill does not render the killing of physicians to be justifiable, I am more than a bit incredulous to read the protestations of South Dakota State Representative Phil Griffin,  to Greg Sargent of the Washington Post According to Sargent:

Griffin insisted that the bill’s primary goal is to bring “consistency” to South Dakota criminal code, which already allows people who commit crimes that result in the death of fetuses to be charged with manslaughter. The new measure expands the state’s definition of “justifiable homicide” by adding a clause applying it to someone who is “resisting any attempt” to murder of an unborn child or to harm an unborn child in a way likely to result in its death.

Griffin’s defense of the bill, writes Sargent, is unlikely to assuage pro-choice advocates “since he seemed to dismiss as irrelevant the possibility that the measure could inflame anti-abortion fanatics to violence.”

I think we have heard that before.

********************

FOR AN ACT ENTITLED, An Act to expand the definition of justifiable homicide to provide for the protection of certain unborn children.
BE IT ENACTED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF THE STATE OF SOUTH DAKOTA:
    Section 1. That § 22-16-34 be amended to read as follows:
    22-16-34. Homicide is justifiable if committed by any person while resisting any attempt to murder such person, or to harm the unborn child of such person in a manner and to a degree likely to result in the death of the unborn child, or to commit any felony upon him or her, or upon or in any dwelling house in which such person is.
    Section 2. That § 22-16-35 be amended to read as follows:
    22-16-35. Homicide is justifiable if committed by any person in the lawful defense of such person, or of his or her husband, wife, parent, child, master, mistress, or servant, or the unborn child of any such enumerated person, if there is reasonable ground to apprehend a design to commit a felony, or to do some great personal injury, and imminent danger of such design being accomplished.

Culture & Conversation Media

Filmmaker Tracy Droz Tragos Centers Abortion Stories in New Documentary

Renee Bracey Sherman

The film arrives at a time when personal stories are center stage in the national conversation about abortion, including in the most recent Supreme Court decision, and rightly so. The people who actually have and provide abortions should be driving the narrative, not misinformation and political rhetoric.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

A new film by producer and director Tracy Droz Tragos, Abortion: Stories Women Tell, profiles several Missouri residents who are forced to drive across the Mississippi River into Illinois for abortion care.

The 93-minute film features interviews with over 20 women who have had or are having abortions, most of whom are Missouri residents traveling to the Hope Clinic in Granite City, Illinois, which is located about 15 minutes from downtown St. Louis.

Like Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming, Missouri has only one abortion clinic in the entire state.

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The women share their experiences, painting a more nuanced picture that shows why one in three women of reproductive age often seek abortion care in the United States.

The film arrives at a time when personal stories are center stage in the national conversation about abortion, including in the most recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, and rightly so. The people who actually have and provide abortions should be driving the narrative, not misinformation and political rhetoric. But while I commend recent efforts by filmmakers like Droz Tragos and others to center abortion stories in their projects, these creators still have far to go when it comes to presenting a truly diverse cadre of storytellers if they really want to shift the conversation around abortion and break down reproductive stigma.

In the wake of Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion law, which was at the heart of the Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt Supreme Court case, Droz Tragos, a Missouri native, said in a press statement she felt compelled to document how her home state has been eroding access to reproductive health care. In total, Droz Tragos interviewed 81 people with a spectrum of experiences to show viewers a fuller picture of the barriersincluding legislation and stigmathat affect people seeking abortion care.

Similar to HBO documentaries about abortion that have come before it—including 12th & Delaware and Abortion: Desperate ChoicesAbortion: Stories Women Tell involves short interviews with women who are having and have had abortions, conversations with the staff of the Hope Clinic about why they do the work they do, interviews with local anti-choice organizers, and footage of anti-choice protesters shouting at patients, along with beautiful shots of the Midwest landscape and the Mississippi River as patients make road trips to appointments. There are scenes of clinic escorts holding their ground as anti-choice protesters yell Bible passages and obscenities at them. One older clinic escort carries a copy of Living in the Crosshairs as a protester follows her to her car, shouting. The escort later shares her abortion story.

One of the main storytellers, Amie, is a white 30-year-old divorced mother of two living in Boonville, Missouri. She travels over 100 miles each way to the Hope Clinic, and the film chronicles her experience in getting an abortion and follow-up care. Almost two-thirds of people seeking abortions, like Amie, are already a parent. Amie says that the economic challenges of raising her other children make continuing the pregnancy nearly impossible. She describes being physically unable to carry a baby and work her 70 to 90 hours a week. Like many of the storytellers in the film, Amie talks about the internalized stigma she’s feeling, the lack of support she has from loved ones, and the fear of family members finding out. She’s resilient and determined; a powerful voice.

The film also follows Kathy, an anti-choice activist from Bloomfield, Missouri, who says she was “almost aborted,” and that she found her calling in the anti-choice movement when she noticed “Anne” in the middle of the name “Planned Parenthood.” Anne is Kathy’s middle name.

“OK Lord, are you telling me that I need to get in the middle of this?” she recalls thinking.

The filmmakers interview the staff of the Hope Clinic, including Dr. Erin King, a pregnant abortion provider who moved from Chicago to Granite City to provide care and who deals with the all-too-common protesting of her home and workplace. They speak to Barb, a talkative nurse who had an abortion 40 years earlier because her nursing school wouldn’t have let her finish her degree while she was pregnant. And Chi Chi, a security guard at the Hope Clinic who is shown talking back to the protesters judging patients as they walk into the clinic, also shares her abortion story later in the film. These stories remind us that people who have abortions are on the frontlines of this work, fighting to defend access to care.

To address the full spectrum of pregnancy experiences, the film also features the stories of a few who, for various reasons, placed their children for adoption or continued to parent. While the filmmakers interview Alexis, a pregnant Black high school student whose mother died when she was 8 years old, classmates can be heard in the distance tormenting her, asking if she’s on the MTV reality show 16 and Pregnant. She’s visibly distraught and crying, illustrating the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” conundrum women of color experiencing unintended pregnancy often face.

Te’Aundra, another young Black woman, shares her story of becoming pregnant just as she received a college basketball scholarship. She was forced to turn down the scholarship and sought an adoption, but the adoption agency refused to help her since the child’s father wouldn’t agree to it. She says she would have had an abortion if she could start over again.

While anti-choice rhetoric has conflated adoption as the automatic abortion alternative, research has shown that most seeking adoption are personally debating between adoption and parenting. This is illustrated in Janet’s story, a woman with a drug addiction who was raising one child with her partner, but wasn’t able to raise a second, so she sought an adoption. These stories are examples of the many societal systems failing those who choose adoption or students raising families, in addition to those fighting barriers to abortion access.

At times, the film feels repetitive and disjointed, but the stories are powerful. The range of experiences and reasons for having an abortion (or seeking adoption) bring to life the data points too often ignored by politicians and the media: everything from economic instability and fetal health, to domestic violence and desire to finish an education. The majority of abortion stories featured were shared by those who already had children. Their stories had a recurring theme of loneliness and lack of support from their loved ones and friends at a time when they needed it. Research has shown that 66 percent of people who have abortions tend to only tell 1.24 people about their experience, leaving them keeping a secret for fear of judgment and shame.

While many cite financial issues when paying for abortions or as the reason for not continuing the pregnancy, the film doesn’t go in depth about how the patients come to pay for their abortions—which is something my employer, the National Network for Abortion Funds (NNAF), directly addresses—or the systemic issues that created their financial situations.

However, it brings to light the hypocrisy of our nation, where the invisible hand of our society’s lack of respect for pregnant people and working parents can force people to make pregnancy decisions based on economic situations rather than a desire to be pregnant or parent.

“I’m not just doing this for me” is a common phrase when citing having an abortion for existing or future children.

Overall, the film is moving simply because abortion stories are moving, especially for audiences who don’t have the opportunity to have someone share their abortion story with them personally. I have been sharing my abortion story for five years and hearing someone share their story with me always feels like a gift. I heard parts of my own story in those shared; however, I felt underrepresented in this film that took place partly in my home state of Illinois. While people of color are present in the film in different capacities, a racial analysis around the issues covered in the film is non-existent.

Race is a huge factor when it comes to access to contraception and reproductive health care; over 60 percent of people who have abortions are people of color. Yet, it took 40 minutes for a person of color to share an abortion story. It seemed that five people of color’s abortion stories were shown out of the over 20 stories, but without actual demographic data, I cannot confirm how all the film’s storytellers identify racially. (HBO was not able to provide the demographic data of the storytellers featured in the film by press time.)

It’s true that racism mixed with sexism and abortion stigma make it more difficult for people of color to speak openly about their abortion stories, but continued lack of visual representation perpetuates that cycle. At a time when abortion storytellers themselves, like those of NNAF’s We Testify program, are trying to make more visible a multitude of identities based on race, sexuality, immigration status, ability, and economic status, it’s difficult to give a ringing endorsement of a film that minimizes our stories and relegates us to the second half of a film, or in the cases of some of these identities, nowhere at all. When will we become the central characters that reality and data show that we are?

In July, at the progressive conference Netroots Nation, the film was screened followed by an all-white panel discussion. I remember feeling frustrated at the time, both because of the lack of people of color on the panel and because I had planned on seeing the film before learning about a march led by activists from Hands Up United and the Organization for Black Struggle. There was a moment in which I felt like I had to choose between my Blackness and my abortion experience. I chose my Black womanhood and marched with local activists, who under the Black Lives Matter banner have centered intersectionality. My hope is that soon I won’t have to make these decisions in the fight for abortion rights; a fight where people of color are the backbone whether we’re featured prominently in films or not.

The film highlights the violent rhetoric anti-choice protesters use to demean those seeking abortions, but doesn’t dissect the deeply racist and abhorrent comments, often hurled at patients of color by older white protesters. These racist and sexist comments are what fuel much of the stigma that allows discriminatory laws, such as those banning so-called race- and sex-selective abortions, to flourish.

As I finished the documentary, I remembered a quote Chelsea, a white Christian woman who chose an abortion when her baby’s skull stopped developing above the eyes, said: “Knowing you’re not alone is the most important thing.”

In her case, her pastor supported her and her husband’s decision and prayed over them at the church. She seemed at peace with her decision to seek abortion because she had the support system she desired. Perhaps upon seeing the film, some will realize that all pregnancy decisions can be quite isolating and lonely, and we should show each other a bit more compassion when making them.

My hope is that the film reaches others who’ve had abortions and reminds them that they aren’t alone, whether they see themselves truly represented or not. That we who choose abortion are normal, loved, and supported. And that’s the main point of the film, isn’t it?

Abortion: Stories Women Tell is available in theaters in select cities and will be available on HBO in 2017.

News Human Rights

Number of People Dying in Texas Police Custody ‘Really Jarring’

Teddy Wilson

“I think this story is really a story that we’ve known for a long time which is that too many people are incarcerated,” said Amanda Woog, a postdoctoral legal fellow and Texas Justice Initiative project director. “The other story that is emerging is that a lot of folks have known for some time too, which is that too many people are incarcerated pre-conviction.”

Nearly 7,000 people have died over the past decade while in police custody in Texas, according to a report by the Texas Justice Initiative (TJI). About 1,900 of those people had not been convicted of a crime. 

Many had not even been charged with a crime.

The TJI report analyzed data collected and published as part of a project by the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis at the University of Texas at Austin.

Unlike people who are executed by the state, which the report notes is “painstakingly documented,” the accounts of those who die while in custody are not widely known. “They occur at every point and phase of our criminal justice system, in a manner that remains largely untracked and unexamined,” the report’s authors wrote. 

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From 2005-2015, there were 6,913 people who died while in police custody in Texas. The number of deaths in police custody has increased over the years. There were 683 in 2015, the highest number of deaths in a single year during the ten-year span, during which there was an average of 623 deaths per year.

Amanda Woog, a postdoctoral legal fellow and TJI project director, told Rewire that the sheer number of people who have died in custody in Texas has been “really jarring for people,” and that the data shines a light on Texas’ incarceral state. 

“I think this story is really a story that we’ve known for a long time which is that too many people are incarcerated,” Woog said. “The other story that is emerging is that a lot of folks have known for some time too, which is that too many people are incarcerated pre-conviction.”

The report found that racial disparities present in the state’s criminal justice system “generally translate into racial disparities in custodial mortality.”

While Black people comprise 12 percent of the Texas population, they account for 30 percent of custodial deaths. Forty-two percent (2,872) of those who died in custody were white, 28 percent (1,915) were Hispanic and 1 percent (66) were from other racial and ethnic backgrounds.

The different categories of deaths while in custody mirror the categories used in the custodial death report.

Under Texas law, when a person dies in police custody, in jail or prison, or as the result of a police officer’s use of force, it is required that the law enforcement agency “file a written report of the cause of death” to the Texas Attorney General’s office.

The attorney general’s office has collected the information contained in those reports and published the results in a single database since 2005. The overwhelming majority of deaths were reported as natural causes.

Wong told the Texas Tribune that if the 4,870 deaths reported from natural causes were examined further, the explanation of those deaths may change how they would be categorized.

“If someone wasn’t charged, then maybe the person filling out the form didn’t think they could say that a homicide had occurred,” Woog said. “But the injuries might be consistent with someone having been attacked.” 

There were 772 (11 percent) deaths due to suicide, 573 (8 percent) people who died due to “justifiable homicide,” 275 (4 percent) who died from alcohol or drug intoxication, 255 (4 percent) who died for other reasons, and 168 (2 percent) who died from an accidental injury.

Maya Schenwar, editor in chief of Truthout and the author of Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better, told Rewire that the number of in-custody deaths in Texas “does seem like a high number.”

“One of the things that this documents, and is so important to recognize, is that this is not just people going [into prison] and dying of natural causes,” Schenwar said. People who are incarcerated “are more likely to die in a situation that a is result of [medical] neglect or suicide or than they are on the outside.”

The TJI report highlights the number of those who have died while in custody without being convicted of a crime. Many had not been charged with any crime.

Pretrial and bail policies have resulted in tens of thousands of people spending time in Texas jails without being convicted of a crime. Of the 63,989 inmates being held in Texas county jails in 2014, 38,745 inmates (60.55 percent) were being detained pre-trial, according to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards annual report

The report found that 76 percent of 1,111 deaths in local jails were people not convicted of a crime and 16 percent of those people had yet to even be charged with a crime. 

The number of people who have died prior to booking or in the process of an arrest increased by 84 percent over the last ten years, from 83 deaths in 2005 to 153 deaths in 2015.

Woog told Rewire that the 573 reports of “justifiable homicides” over the past ten years present a challenge to analyzing the data because the state does not define the term in the individual reports.

“It is a term that I think we need to move past, at least when we’re talking about data collection for police involved shootings,” Woog said. “It’s kind of turned into a proxy term in reporting for ‘officer involved shootings,’ but from a data collection point of view it’s not a perfect proxy by any means.”   

As noted by the report’s authors, the term “justifiable homicide” “appears conclusory when it is not clear who made the decision that it was justifiable.” The term is both “under inclusive and over inclusive with respect to officer-involved shootings.” 

Nearly all of the incidents of so-called justifiable homicide occurred prior to booking and without any charges filed: 562 (98 percent) of deaths that were deemed “justifiable homicides” occurred prior to booking and 530 (92 percent) of justifiable homicides happened to people who had not been charged with a crime.

There were two justifiable homicides in prisons and nine justifiable homicides in jails. There were three justifiable homicides of people who had been convicted of a crime, six justifiable homicides of those who were on parole, and 34 justifiable homicides of individuals who were the subject of criminal charges.

Schenwar told Rewire that the report highlights something that is “very pervasive in the system,” and that there is a need to examine the problem of medical and mental health neglect in jails and prisons. 

“Prison causes death in so many different ways and a lot of them are ways in which we might not be able to directly document,” Schenwar said. “Looking at these data sets you might not be able to say that ‘prison killed this person,’ but you can start looking at them and realize that they might be much more likely to die while incarcerate because of these reasons that can’t be connected dot to dot.”

Woog told the Texas Tribune that information will help inform the public discussion on police brutality and violence within the criminal justice system.

“We can’t have an informed conversation about who’s dying at the hands of police or who’s dying in jails if we don’t literally know who’s dying and how they’re dying,” Woog told the Tribune. “I think this information can help us get to the bottom causes of mortality in the criminal justice system and with that lead us to solutions.”

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