Utah Governor Signs Controversial Law Charging Women and Girls With Murder for Miscarriages

On Monday afternoon, a controversial Utah bill that charges pregnant women and girls with murder for having miscarriages caused by “intentional or knowing” acts, was signed into law by Gov. Gary Herbert.

Contrary to media reports last week, the “Criminal Homicide and Abortion Amendments” or HB12, which previously also applied to miscarriages caused by “reckless” acts, was never “withdrawn” by its sponsor, Republican Representative Carl Wimmer (who is crafting similar “model legislation” for other states). After the governor expressed concern over “possible unintended consequences,” of the legislation as written, Rep. Wimmer swiftly introduced a new version, titled “Criminal Homicide and Abortion Revisions” (HB462), which omitted the word “reckless.” Gov. Herbert signed the new bill and vetoed the old one.

In a letter to legislative leaders on Monday, the governor wrote: “I appreciate the willingness of Representative Wimmer to reevaluate the impact of potential unintended consequences arising from the inclusion of ‘reckless’ behavior in HB12. HB 462 is more consistent with the true intent of the legislation and addresses those situations in which the termination of a pregnancy is intentional and is not conducted at a physician’s direction.”

Nevertheless, women’s and civil rights groups say the new, just-signed version of the bill is just as dangerous.

“We are still passing legislation which seeks to criminalize women for their actions,” Marina Lowe, legislative and policy counsel for the ACLU of Utah, told AlterNet. “The language is still problematic.” 

The original bill, which passed the Utah House and Senate a few weeks ago, attracted widespread condemnation and even international attention. But organizations like the ACLU and Planned Parenthood say most media coverage is missing the larger issue.

“Everyone’s focusing on the bill, but no one is talking about how we got here,” Melissa Bird, executive director of the Planned Parenthood Action Council in Utah, told AlterNet. “I’m thrilled the media have picked this up, but we need to start from the beginning.” 

Starting from the beginning means revisiting the case of a 17-year-old girl from Vernal, Utah, who was seven months pregnant last May, when she paid 21-year-old Aaron Harrison $150 to beat her up after her boyfriend threatened to leave her if she didn’t terminate the pregnancy. 

According to the Salt Lake Tribune, Harrison brought the girl to the basement of his parent’s house and attacked and kicked her, leaving bruises on her stomach and a bite mark on her neck. The baby survived the assault, was born in August, and has since been adopted. 

Harrison, who faced 15 years in prison, pleaded guilty to second-degree felony attempted murder, but instead got up to five years, after District Judge A. Lynn Payne sentenced him under Utah’s anti-abortion statute, saying a charge of third-degree “attempted killing of an unborn child” better fit the facts of the case, according to the Tribune

In June, the 17-year-old girl, whose name has not been released because of her age, pleaded no contest to a second-degree felony count of criminal solicitation to commit murder. Juvenile Court Judge Larry Steele ordered that she be placed in the custody of Utah Juvenile Justice Services until she turns 21, but she was released in October after the judge said that, under state law, “a woman who solicits or seeks to have another cause an abortion of her own unborn child cannot be criminally liable.”

That’s when Rep. Wimmer stepped in.

“The judge is absolutely stretching,” he said after the ruling. “There’s no way the judge believes the Utah Legislature left open this loophole [in the law]. I guarantee it will be closed this next session.” 

Rep. Wimmer introduced the Criminal Homicide and Abortion Amendments bill on December 14, and the Criminal Homicide and Abortion Revisions bill (minus the word “reckless”) on March 4. Both bills passed overwhelmingly, on February 24 and March 5 respectively, with little debate. 

Democratic Senator Ben McAdams, one of just four of 29 senators who voted against both pieces of legislation (three Democratic female senators voted for both), says the revised bill still sets a dangerous precedent that would “open up a Pandora’s box” of unintended legal consequences that will be hard to reverse. “Even the word ‘knowingly’ will result in unintended consequences,” he told AlterNet.

Planned Parenthood’s Melissa Bird says the same questions that so alarmed the bill’s earlier critics still apply to the rewritten version that was just signed into law.

“What happens to women who are in abusive relationships?” she asks. “What happens if a woman threatens to leave the abuser, falls down the stairs and loses the baby? What if the abuser beats the woman and causes a miscarriage? Could he turn her in? Who would the prosecutor believe? What happens if a drug addict who’s trying to get clean loses her baby? Will she be brought up on murder charges?” 

Rep. Wimmer claims such women would not be prosecuted because they didn’t knowingly act to terminate their pregnancies. But Bird says that is not necessarily the point.

“Even if the prosecutor doesn’t take the case, nothing precludes a woman from being brought to the attention of law enforcement in the first place,” she said. “What we’re doing is driving women underground and preventing them from getting health care and prenatal care.”

To put this in human terms, had Rep. Wimmer’s bill been on the books last spring — and had the 17-year-old’s fetus not survived — she would have faced a prison sentence of 15 years to life. Rep. Wimmer says he’s OK with that because the teenager has to face the “consequences of her barbaric actions.” 

“It’s pretty rare for a politician to openly support jail time for girls who have abortions, no matter how desperate they seem to be” a 40-something abortion provider who asked to remain anonymous, told AlterNet. “This is extreme. Mark my words. If they can get away with this, they will try to make abortion illegal in the state of Utah. People need to wake up.”

‘No One Wants to Defend Abortion’

Rep. Wimmer, who is a conservative Christian, makes no attempt to hide his anti-choice agenda.

According to his Web site, as chairman of the Utah Family Action Council, “we are continually working to pass pro-life legislation which will weaken Roe v. Wade. Abortions should be reserved for extreme cases only.” 

Upon learning of Rep. Wimmer’s planned legislation to put girls and women behind bars for “reckless” miscarriages, Planned Parenthood’s Bird called his office.

“I said, ‘Don’t do this until we sit down and talk,’” she told AlterNet. “There wasn’t a real willingness on the part of not only our elected officials, but also our local media, to find out how this young girl got into the circumstance she was in. I was trying to start that conversation, but nobody was willing to go there.”

“Yes, it’s mortifying,” Bird continued. “But should we be passing a law like this when we’re not even willing to talk about how she got pregnant? We do know she was living in poverty. We know she was from an incredibly rural part of the state and had no access to sex education or reproductive health care services.”

For activists and family planning advocates, this gets to the crux of this issue.

“Even without this legislation, I wouldn’t say throwing women in jail for having miscarriages is outside the realm of possibility,” says the Utah ACLU’s Marina Lowe. “The larger issue is whether or not our young people have access to information and services, especially people in remote parts of the state.” 

Planned Parenthood closed its clinic in Vernal, Utah 10 years ago. Three clinics offer abortions in Utah — all located in Salt Lake City, a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Vernal. According to the Guttmacher Institute, which advocates for sexual and reproductive health in the United States, 93 percent of all Utah counties have no abortion provider. 

“This is a nationwide problem,” says Dr. William Adams, 74, an abortion provider who runs the Mountain View Clinic in Salt Lake City. “I became an OB/GYN in 1973, the year abortion became legal. Since then, it’s only gotten worse,” 

“I see women from southeastern Idaho, western Wyoming, and occasionally some from eastern Nevada,” Dr. Adams told AlterNet. “They don’t have providers there.”

Dr. Adams says Utah’s legislation is extreme, but not unexpected.

“Nothing really surprises me anymore,” he said. “What saddens me is the fact that no one wants to defend abortion, not even the women who have one. We’re not even teaching our kids how to be responsible so they won’t get pregnant or get STDs.”

Chlamydia More Likely Than Chicken Pox In Utah

Ironically, just three days after Utah’s House and Senate overwhelmingly passed Rep. Wimmer’s Criminal Homicide and Abortion Amendments bill, the Senate refused to even debate legislation that would have allowed teachers to provide comprehensive sex education to students who had their parent’s permission. Current state law says teachers can’t advocate or endorse the use of contraceptive methods or devices, according to Bird.

“If you teach about chlamydia, you’re allowed to say, ‘This is a condom and this is chlamydia.’ The law would have allowed teachers to say, ‘If you’re having sex, you can use a condom to prevent chlamydia. Abstinence is the best way, but if you’re not abstinent, use a condom.’” 

Every day in Utah, 12 teenage girls between the ages of 15 and 19 become pregnant. Chlamydia is the number one most reported communicable disease in the state, according to the Utah Department of Health. In 2007 there were 5,721 newly reported cases; 3,748 of those cases (66 percent) were diagnosed in individuals between the ages of 15 and 24. In Utah, you’re more likely to get chlamydia than chicken pox or the flu. 

“Young girls are getting chlamydia and they’re not learning about it until they might be infertile,” Emma Waitzman, an 18-year-old senior at Salt Lake City’s West High School, told AlterNet. “That’s morally wrong.”   Waitzman has spent the past year working to get comprehensive sex education in Utah schools by organizing students, confronting conservatives, starting a Facebook group for Comprehensive Sex Ed in Utah, attending legislative hearings and meeting with legislators. She’s told legislators about girls who had to switch schools because of unwanted pregnancies. Another girl she knew had gonorrhea of the mouth. 

“We talked to legislators who said, ‘If you really want to share the information, then do it yourself,’” she recalls. “We said, ‘No, it’s not our responsibility. It’s yours.’ I couldn’t believe a grown man was saying this to me. Are we going to have to teach ourselves?”

A statewide poll conducted in September found that 67 percent of Utahns believe comprehensive sex-ed would “likely reduce the number of unintended teen pregnancies.” The poll was paid for by Planned Parenthood.

Waitzman says the students at her school aren’t politically active, but this issue has raised awareness and interest.

The same applies to parents, says Lori Harward, founder of PTA Parents for Comprehensive Sex-Ed.

“This is a very hush-hush issue in Utah,” Harward told AlterNet. “Even my good friends get defensive when I talk about it.”

Although she is religious and prefers teaching abstinence, Harward says it is irresponsible not to provide students with comprehensive sex ed.

“It’s time to speak out,” she said. “We’re a predominantly LDS [Latter-day Saints] state. It’s conservative here. I am LDS myself. I go to temple. I totally believe in this church. I believe in abstinence only, but I have four girls and I would be a fool to think that all of my children are going to choose abstinence. I grew up in this state and almost everyone was having sex. Let’s get real.”

Parents and students in favor of comprehensive sex education showed up on the day the Senate was supposed to debate the bill late last month, but instead of being asked to share their opinions and concerns, they were ignored. “I felt so disrespected,” says Waitzman. “Is this what politics is about?” 

Despite that disappointing experience, she organized a March for Sexual Education on Saturday in Salt Lake City and plans to continue the fight. “The bill is still alive in the House. We can’t give up. I have a feeling that they would like us to just go away, but that’s not going to happen.”

First published at AlterNet.

Rose Aguilar is the host of Your Call, a daily call-in show on KALW 91.7 FM in San Francisco, and author of Red Highways: A Liberal's Journey into the Heartland. Read other articles by Rose.