Exploiting Tragedy?

04.01.15 2:50 PM ET

Colorado Seeks Fetal Murder Law After Attack On Pregnant Woman

Abortion advocates fear a gruesome attack on a pregnant woman in Colorado will be used to push through strict ‘personhood’ laws that could be used to prosecute women terminating their pregnancies.

Energized by national outrage over a grisly attack on a pregnant woman whose unborn baby died after being cut from her womb, a Colorado lawmaker is poised to push a new fetal homicide law in the state, leading to concern that Republicans might be turning a tragedy into a talking point for anti-abortion legislation.

Dynel Lane, a 34-year-old former nurse’s aide, is accused of luring 26-year-old Michelle Wilkins to her home with a Craigslist advertisement for baby clothes. Soon after the seven-months pregnant woman arrived, Lane stabbed her and sliced her abdomen open, removed the baby girl Michelle had planned to name Aurora from her belly, and left the infant for dead in a bathtub upstairs as Wilkins lay bleeding almost to death in the basement.

According to the arrest report, Lane’s husband arrived home to find his wife covered in blood. Lane—who had been lying about a pregnancy, as her daughters told police—told her husband she had miscarried. Upon finding what hospital officials later determined would have been “viable” baby in the bathtub, Lane’s husband “rubbed the baby slightly then rolled it over to hear and see it take a gasping breath,” the police report stated. Lane and her husband drove with the baby to the hospital, where she allegedly came clean once confronted by police and doctors who saw no evidence of miscarriage. Wilkins called 911 from Lane’s basement and paramedics rushed to her aid in time to save her.

“I understand that many people in the community, and heaven knows I’ve heard from a lot of them, would like me to have filed homicide charges,” District Attorney Stan Garnett explained at a press conference last week. “However, that is not possible under Colorado law without proof of a live birth.”

Colorado Republicans and religious leaders spoke out against the Boulder County District Attorney and the state’s laws protecting the unborn.

The Archdiocese of Denver released a similar statement urging legislators to take action. “Colorado law tells [Michelle and her family] it was not murder, no crime was committed against the child,” Denver Archbishop Samuel Aquila wrote.

And so, Colorado State Senate President Bill Cadman has announced that he will introduce new legislation meant to address what he sees as a gap in the state’s justice system, a fetal homicide bill that would extend murder charges to someone who kills an “unborn child.” To abortion-rights advocates and Democratic lawmakers, the yet-to-be penned bill is reminiscent of measures that have failed in recent years that would confer legal personhood on a fetus—laws that would have the (some say intended) effect of restricting abortion rights and could make a woman’s legal termination of a pregnancy into a crime. In fact, those in the anti-abortion movement are almost always the same people advocating for fetal homicide legislation.“Coloradans have said ‘no,’ to anything that smacks of personhood over and over again,” Karen Middleton, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado, told The Daily Beast, pointing to four anti-choice bills that had been defeated this legislative session. Colorado has also rejected two fetal homicide bills in recent years, according to the Associated Press.

Opponents of Cadman’s bill argue that there is already an effective law that deals with such violence against a pregnant woman and her unborn child: the 2013 Crimes Against Pregnant Women Act. The National Conference of State Legislatures lists Colorado among the the 38 states with what is, in effect, a fetal homicide law—though some like Colorado stop short of designating the unwanted death of a fetus to be murder. The 2013 law was proposed as an alternative to a personhood measure inspired by an eight-months pregnant woman who lost her baby in a car accident to a drunk driver, who was never prosecuted for taking the life of the unborn. The 2013 act made the unlawful termination of pregnancy a crime by recognizing the pregnant woman as the victim of the crime while explicitly withholding legal personhood from an embryo or fetus.

According to the bill’s sponsor, Democratic Representative Mike Foote, the unlawful termination of pregnancy charge has been used eight times since its enactment. Lane’s will be the ninth.“We’ve already filled the gap,” Foote told The Daily Beast. “We’ve filled it in a thoughtful way, and the penalties are severe... I don’t think a new bill is necessary.”

Middleton of NARAL said the current law was unlike any other in the nation and called it “a good compromise, a good step forward, in terms of putting severe penalties in place for criminals without criminalizing women or going down the slippery slope of personhood.”

Cadman, who voted along party lines against the Crimes Against Pregnant Women Act, is expected to introduce his new legislation this week.