A South Carolina bill that passed a senate committee on Thursday would expand the state’s “stand your ground” self-defense law to include fetuses.
Under the new law, pregnant women would be protected from prosecution if they use lethal force to defend their “unborn children,” defined as “the offspring of human beings from conception until birth.”
Reproductive rights activists say the bill is unnecessary because current law already allows any person, including pregnant women, to use lethal force to protect themselves.
While the law would not actually ban abortion or contraception, as suggested in some news reports, it still “could be a strategy of the anti-abortion movement to chip away at rights,” Amanda Allen, state legislative counsel for the Center for Reproductive Rights, told Rewire.
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Allen said the bill does not grant fetuses full legal “personhood” rights, and doesn’t touch on abortion or contraception. But, she said, “The threat is whether the personhood language could be exploited down the line to restrict access to reproductive health.”
The anti-choice group Americans United for Life wrote model language for the bill, and has long advocated for laws that create harsher penalties, or even a separate crime, for harming fetuses.
A fetal homicide bill currently advancing in Florida, HB 59, would create a separate crime for harming a fetus during an attack on a pregnant woman, and, like South Carolina’s proposed law, applies to the earliest stages of pregnancy. At least 38 states have fetal homicide laws, and at least 23 of those apply to the earliest stages of pregnancy.
The proposed laws in Florida and South Carolina are different: while Florida’s has to do with creating a separate crime, South Carolina’s deals with expanding that state’s self-defense law. But both bills “raise the specter of personhood in the law,” Allen said, and neither is necessary.
“For both bills, the question is not whether pregnant women should have sufficient protection under the law,” Allen said. “The question is really how to do that in a way that wouldn’t jeopardize reproductive rights down the line, and both the South Carolina and the Florida bills fail to strike that balance appropriately.”