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June 17th, 2009 Aaron Mendelson | News Stories
 

Baby-Face Politics

A grisly slaying gives new life to an old idea—criminalizing the killing of a fetus.

     
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GRUESOME CHARGES: Authorities say Korena Roberts killed a pregnant woman. Should Roberts also face charges of killing the fetus?
IMAGE: Photos courtesy of KATU

The recent slaying of Heather Snively and her 8-month-old fetus reignited a hot-button political issue that’s popped up here and all over America after similar tragedies.

Should Korena Roberts, the woman accused of killing Snively, be charged with a second homicide for cutting out Snively’s nearly full-term baby—a boy who would have been named John Stephen?

State Sen. Bruce Starr (R-Hillsboro) has introduced Senate Bill 982, which would make “the murder, manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, or aggravated vehicular homicide” of a fetus a prosecutable offense.

His bill would amend current laws in Oregon that require the fetus to have taken a breath to be considered a victim.

“When there are two dead bodies, then there should be two penalties,” says Gayle Atteberry, executive director of Oregon Right to Life.

Starr, who didn’t return calls from WW, said in a press release announcing his bill: “There is no doubt that there are two victims, two crimes, and two instances where justice must be served.”

But there’s a political subtext here: Such proposals emerged repeatedly from anti-abortion advocates seeking to have the law treat a fetus as a person with rights.

SB 982 is modeled after a measure—which made allowances for lawful abortion and any “acts committed by the pregnant woman”—that passed the then-Republican-controlled Oregon House in 2005. But the measure, House Bill 2020, failed to get through the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Starr’s bill is unlikely to pass in the current Legislature, now in its final weeks and controlled by Democrats. But it surely puts Democrats and pro-choice advocates in a tough political spot arguing against criminalizing the death of a nearly-full term fetus under such grisly circumstances.

Women’s advocates fear defining a fetus as a human being will lead to the erosion of women’s rights.

Lynn Paltrow, a spokeswoman for National Advocates for Pregnant Women, says such laws have been misused in the 36 states that have them “against pregnant women who are alleged to have harmed their fetuses.” In Tennessee, for example, Beverly Ferguson pleaded guilty in 2005 to criminally negligent homicide after she delivered a stillborn that tested positive for cocaine.

And Starr’s bill will face opposition from the American Civil Liberties Union, which in 2005 said the fetus-killing bill would “chip away at the legal foundation of a woman’s right to choose abortion.” David Fidanque, executive director of the ACLU’s Oregon chapter, says Starr’s newer proposal would violate due process, as it includes the statement: “It is no defense that the defendant did not know or could not reasonably have known the woman was pregnant.”

While Starr’s proposal troubles many women’s advocates, officials with the local chapters of pro-choice groups such as Planned Parenthood and NARAL of Oregon were both reluctant to comment, with NARAL deputy director Laura Taylor saying, “At this point we don’t have any comment out of respect for the family.”

Bill Lunch, a political science professor at Oregon State University, says the bill’s proponents know they’re putting pro-choice adversaries in a bind by trying to use such a high-profile case to establish the legal cornerstone of a fetus being a person.

“The anti-abortion forces have tried a variety of disingenuous tactics,” Lunch says, “to make marginal progress toward their goals.”


FACT: Beyond the 36 states with laws similar to the bill Starr is proposing, there’s also a federal Unborn Victims of Violence Act. But that law is not applicable in the state’s prosecution of Roberts.
 
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