Colorado Pro-Choice Advocates: Giving Legal Rights to Fetuses Doesn’t Protect Pregnant Woman

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Colorado Pro-Choice Advocates: Giving Legal Rights to Fetuses Doesn’t Protect Pregnant Woman

Jason Salzman

Colorado pro-choice activists on Wednesday decried a bill introduced by state Republicans in response to a grotesque crime against a pregnant woman that would give "personhood" rights to fetuses.

Colorado pro-choice activists on Wednesday decried a bill introduced by state Republicans in response to a grotesque crime against a pregnant woman that would give “personhood” rights to fetuses.

During a Wednesday news conference prior to a legislative hearing on the anti-choice bill, which defines fetuses as potential victims of crime, including murder, pro-choice advocates urged lawmakers to focus on measures to protect women from violence instead of giving fetuses legal rights that could be used to arrest pregnant women.

“Why are we having a conversation about how many years is long enough [to incarcerate someone for destroying a fetus], rather than asking whether these laws do anything to deter violence against pregnant women, to protect pregnancies, embryos, and fetuses,” said Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women.

Paltrow said there’s no evidence that so-called feticide laws deter crimes against pregnant women.

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Paltrow said that “prosecutors are very good at finding ways around statutory language” and have a history of using feticide laws to prosecute pregnant women for crimes such as child abuse and even murder.

The “personhood” legislation emerged in the wake of an attack on Michelle Wilkins, whose womb was cut open and her 34-week-old fetus destroyed during on March 18.

Colorado’s proposed law, which excludes from prosecution actions taken by the pregnant woman herself, could “be applied not to protect pregnant women but to restrict their rights as well as the rights of physicians,” said Rebecca Cohen, a Denver OB-GYN.

“A woman who has suffered a miscarriage, or still birth, or a life-threatening ectopic pregnancy, could be prosecuted, if someone suggests that she did not take enough action to protect her health,” said Cohen, referring to how the bill could affect her work. “And I, as someone caring for her, could also be charged, for instance, if I thought there was something that could have been done differently. This affects my relationship with my patients.”

State Rep. Mike Foote (D-Lafayette) said Colorado’s 2013 “Unlawful Termination of Pregnancy Act” already provides severe penalties, including a 32-year Class 3 felony charge, for a crime against a pregnant woman.

This charge was added to others, leaving the alleged attacker in last month’s Colorado attack facing a prison term of more than 100 years. This type of sentence would almost certainly be faced by perpetrators of all severe crimes against pregnant women in the state, Foote said.

“We made sure to put exclusions in the 2013 law that made it crystal clear, beyond any doubt, that a doctor or any medical professional could not be prosecuted under this law and also that a woman could not be prosecuted for failing to act with regard to her own pregnancy,” he said. “And we put in the law that nothing in it could lead to ‘personhood’ being written into Colorado state law.”

Colorado’s existing law does not give legal rights to fetuses.

State senate president Bill Cadman, a Republican who introduced this year’s bill, has said in numerous interviews that his bill is about justice for the pregnant woman and the fetus. As he told the Denver Post’s John Frank last week, he wants “to guarantee that a woman who wants to have a baby is protected.”

Meanwhile, backers of Colorado’s “personhood” amendments, which have been rejected by voters three times, are opposing Cadman’s bill.

“This is not a personhood bill because it does not afford the child in the womb the equal protection of the law with regard to his or her right to life,” Gualberto Garcia Jones, the author of Colorado’s failed 2014 “personhood” amendment, told Rewire via email. “Those who wish to allow abortion to continue to be available but who would like to see homicide charges for people like Dynel Lane should be happy with this bill, but for me personally, I see no difference for a child who is killed by Dynel Lane in Longmont and by [abortion provider] Warren Hern 15 minutes away in Boulder; to truly afford equal protection, the law should treat them both as what they are, homicides.”

Asked if the bill’s text excluding “medical procedures” from prosecution was sufficiently vague to allow for a potential crackdown on abortion rights, Personhood USA spokesperson Jennifer Mason wrote via email, “Regardless of how I interpret ‘medical procedure,’ I know Planned Parenthood interprets it to include abortion and will use this language to legitimize their business of killing unborn children. That is a serious concern with this bill.”

A state senate committee was expected to pass Cadman’s bill Tuesday in a party-line vote and, later, the entire senate will likely pass it, according to state observers.

But they say the prospects of the bill passing the state house, controlled by Democrats, are much lower. Democratic Gov. John Hicknlooper has signaled an openness to the legislation.