Eleven years ago, President George W Bush signed into law the “Unborn Victims of Violence Act”, a landmark piece of legislation detailing how unborn children can be given victim status if they are injured or killed whilst they are still in utero, and they will be treated as a separate case from the mother. The original bill was proposed following the savage killing of Laci Peterson and her seven-month old fetus Connor, in order to establish and protect the rights of the unborn child.
In recent years the law has been utilised and amended on a state by state basis, illustrating the scope of this issue. In Florida the law has carried particular emotional weight for many advocates, as the bill has failed to make it through the state legislature on numerous occasions for over a decade, and only made the full passage into law in October 2014. Whilst states such as Kentucky have mirrored the federal passage of the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, in also clarifying their stance on fetal homicide laws in 2004, states such as New York have been more ambiguous, and according to National Right to Life, “Under New York statutory law, the killing of an “unborn child” after twenty-four weeks of pregnancy is homicide [...] But under a separate statutory provision, a “person” that is the victim of a homicide is statutorily defined as a “human being who has been born and is alive.” The indefinite and ever-pervasive argument of when a fetus gains personhood status has thwarted many states' ability to accept the Unborn Victims of Violence Act in its entirety.
Despite Florida having only approved the law holistically in 2014, in 2013 the state became the first to have an individual charged under the Unborn Victims of Violence Act by federal prosecutors. John Andrew Welden induced the miscarriage of his girlfriend, Renee Lee, misleading her by giving her pills he had told her she needed for an infection (which his father, an innocent gynaecologist, had supposedly spotted in the blood work of Renee, though the father in fact played no role in the foul-play). As this case demonstrates, this law can be enormously successful across the spectrum in combatting violence enacted against women and their children in utero, whether this is in a case of calculated murder against both mother and child, as with Laci and Connor, or inducing the death of the fetus, as with Renee Lee’s unborn child.
The law is, however, taken into issue by many in the pro-choice community, who object to it being used as a means to prohibit and restrict abortion rights, with the National Organization for Women arguing a year before the bill was made into law, “The passage of this bill would set a devastating precedent and encourage the expansion of 'fetal rights' into other areas of the law. This would fundamentally challenge a woman's right to an abortion and is clearly a part of the anti-reproductive rights forces' agenda to dismantle Roe v. Wade." This issue, in the potential skewing of reproductive rights, is evident at this moment, with the sentencing of Purvi Patel two days ago under Indiana’s foeticide laws, for abandoning her fetus once she had miscarried. The law being attached to this issue, for many pro-choice activists, then calls into question the pre-natal access available to women of color and immigrants such as Purvi Patel (as allegedly in her miscarriage she panicked because of her strict religious upbringing), then complicating the issue of what an “unborn victim of violence” really constitutes if these other factors are so difficult to navigate for the women in question, meaning they feel desperate and perhaps do not act with their best judgement. With Indiana defined as only “partially” covering the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, we see how stringent feticide laws can be inescapable for women in particular states, as seen with Purvi Patel in her receiving twenty years’ jail time in a state which does not even recognise the original statute of the Unborn Victims of Violence Act in full.
Emma Welton is an editorial intern for Warscapes.