March 9, 2010 | Critics are worried the law will open up a
Pandora's box of unintended legal consequences.
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"reckless" acts, was never "withdrawn" by its sponsor, Republican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
?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
?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
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
?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
For activists and family planning advocates, this gets to the crux of this
?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
?I see women from southeastern Idaho, western Wyoming, and occasionally some
from eastern Nevada,? Dr. Adams told AlterNet. "They don?t have providers
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??