Womens Health

Utah Bill Would Punish Women for Inducing 'Illegal' Abortions

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A bill in Utah -- that could lead to murder charges against women who induce miscarriages and illegal abortions on their own -- has been passed by the House and Senate, and awaits the governor's signature.

The measure would criminalize a woman's "intentional, knowing, or reckless act" leading to a pregnancy's illegal termination. It specifies that a woman cannot be prosecuted for arranging a legal abortion.

The bill is a response to an incident where a pregnant 17-year-old girl paid a man $150 to beat her and cause a miscarriage. It didn't work, and she later gave birth to the baby and gave it up for adoption. She was initially charged with attempted murder, but the charge was dropped because there was no law against what she did.

But an advocacy group for pregnant women has a major problem with the law, in part because it targets the woman, and not those who assist her.

"What is really radical and different about this statute is that all of the other states' feticide laws are directed to third party attackers," explained Lynn M. Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women. "[Other states' feticide laws] were passed in response to a pregnant woman who has been beaten up by a husband or boyfriend. Utah's law is directed to the woman herself and that's what makes it different and dangerous."

In addition to criminalizing an intentional attempt to induce a miscarriage or abortion, the bill also creates a standard that could make women legally responsible for miscarriages caused by "reckless behavior."  

Using the legal standard of "reckless behavior," all a prosecutor needs to show is that a woman behaved in a manner that is thought to cause miscarriage, even if she didn't intend to lose the pregnancy.

"This creates a law that makes any pregnant woman who has a miscarriage potentially criminally liable for murder," says Missy Bird, executive director of Planned Parenthood Action Fund of Utah. Bird says there are no exemptions in the bill for victims of domestic violence, for example. The standard is so broad, Bird says, "there nothing in the bill to exempt a woman for not wearing her seatbelt who got into a car accident."

Several state senators failed in an attempt to omit the recklessness aspect from the bill.

"I know it's well-intentioned," the bill's sponsor, Sen. Margaret Dayton said of the attempt to lift "reckless acts" from the bill, "but I don't think we want to go down the road of carefully defining the behavior of a woman."

Dayton said the bill does not target victims, just those who arrange to have their pregnancies terminated.

Paltrow is not convinced. "Whether or not the legislature intended this bill to become a tool for policing and punishing all pregnant women, if enacted this law would permit prosecution of a pregnant woman who stayed with her abusive husband because she was unable to leave. Not leaving would, under the 'reckless' standard, constitute conduct that consciously disregarded a substantial risk."

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