2.10.2008

blog for choice alert: canada does not need an "unborn victims of crime act"

There's an effort in the Canadian blogosphere to get the word out about a sneak attack on reproductive freedom taking place in Parliament. I realize this bill has virtually no chance of becoming law, but people should know it's out there.

Conservative MP Ken Epps (Edmonton Sherwood Park) has introduced a private member's bill called The "Unborn Victims of Crime Act" (C-484). It had its first hour of debate in Parliament on December 13; the second hour is projected to be on February 29, with a vote on March 5.

Like similar laws already in place in 37 US states, this law would amend the Criminal Code to allow separate homicide charges to be brought if a pregnancy is terminated when a pregnant woman is attacked. The full text of the bill is here.

The Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada spells out why this cannot be allowed to become law. I'll reprint it here.

Even if you oppose these types of laws - even if you think you understand why they are harmful and unnecessary, and why they pose a threat to the freedom and rights of women - I urge you to read this list.
1. Fetal personhood conflicts with the Criminal Code. The bill grants a type of legal personhood to fetuses. This conflicts with the existing Criminal Code provision that fetuses are not persons until they exit from the birth canal alive. (Section 223[1]). Further, the bill tries to amend Part VIII of the Criminal Code, "Offences Against the Person and Reputation"; however, the fetus is not a legal person and cannot rightly fall under this section.

2. We need to address domestic violence against pregnant women. The bill takes the focus away from the real issue — domestic violence against pregnant women. When media coverage focuses on the victim’s fetus, the pregnant woman is forgotten. But homicide is the leading cause of death for pregnant women and new mothers, and violence against women increases during pregnancy. What we need instead of this bill are better measures to reduce violence against pregnant women.

3. The bill does not protect women, only fetuses. The bill does not make it a crime to attack pregnant women, and applies narrowly only to the fetuses of pregnant women. Further, Mr. Epp’s stated intent of the bill is to protect only wanted fetuses. (He said: "This is all about protecting the choice of a woman to give birth to her child." However, women who have recently given birth, or have had abortions or are planning to have abortions, are also at increased risk of domestic violence. This bill completely fails them. By far the best way to protect fetuses is to protect pregnant women, their sole caretakers. We need to give pregnant women the supports and resources they need for good pregnancy outcomes, including protection from domestic violence.

4. The law has no rational or evidential basis. This is a "feel-good" bill designed to satisfy emotional needs, and the wish for punishment and vengeance. There is no evidence the bill will have any deterrent or beneficial effect. "Fetal homicide" laws in the U.S. have done nothing to reduce domestic violence against pregnant women or fetuses. Further, the bill wrongly capitalizes on the grief of families to push a fetal rights agenda.

5. The bill’s real intent is to give fetuses personhood and criminalize abortion. The narrowness of the bill indicates that the real intent is not to protect women, but to give fetuses legal personhood, for no apparent reason other than to try and use it as a wedge to re-criminalize abortion. The bill was introduced and promoted by anti-abortion groups and individuals (e.g., Campaign Life Coalition, Conservative anti-abortion MP's, Margaret Somerville, and others). Also, it uses anti-choice language, including "unborn child", "child" and "mother". The bill is modeled after similar bills promoted and passed in the U.S. by anti-abortion groups and legislators. In South Carolina, anti-abortion lawmakers explicitly stated they wanted to use the state’s fetal homicide law as a legal foundation to overturn Roe v. Wade (the decision that legalized abortion in the U.S.).

6. The bill conflicts with women's guaranteed rights and equality under our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Supreme Court has ruled that a woman and her fetus are considered "physically one" person under the law, and that rights accrue to the pregnant woman. It would be extremely difficult to give fetuses any legal recognition without compromising women’s established rights in some way.

7. Legally separating a woman from her fetus causes harm. Creating a legal separation of a pregnant woman and her fetus can result in a harmful, adversarial relationship between them. When their interests conflict, one or both can be endangered. For example, if pregnant women are threatened with arrest for abusing drugs, they are less likely to seek pre-natal care.

8. The bill creates an inherent contradiction and confusion in the law, by pitting fetal rights against women's rights, and creating a conflict with abortion rights. If a fetus is a legal entity with the right not to be killed, how then can abortion be exempt, and why should a pregnant woman's potentially harmful behaviours be exempt? The law opens the door to pregnant women being targeted for their behaviours or for self-abortions, as has happened in some U.S. states.

9. Pregnant women have been arrested under U.S. fetal homicide laws. In the United States, 37 states have enacted fetal protection laws or so-called "fetal homicide" laws, which make it a crime to cause harm to a fetus. But under these laws, it’s been shown that pregnant women are more likely to be punished for behaviours and conditions that are not criminalized for other people, such as drug or alcohol abuse and mental illness. Women have also been charged or jailed for murder for experiencing a stillbirth after refusing a caesarean section, or just from suffering a stillbirth. Some states have proposed punishing pregnant women in abusive relationships who are unable to leave their batterers. The worst offender is South Carolina, where nearly 100 pregnant women with drug abuse problems have been arrested under its fetal homicide law, even though they had virtually no access to drug treatment programs. Meanwhile, only one man has been arrested for killing a pregnant woman under the South Carolina law.

10. The bill’s exemptions for pregnant women may not work. Epp’s bill specifically exempts pregnant women from prosecution, as well as abortion. However, in the U.S., arrests of pregnant women have occurred even under state fetal homicide laws that make exemptions for the pregnant woman. For example, pregnant women have been arrested for murdering or assaulting their fetuses in Pennsylvania, Texas, Missouri, and California under "fetal homicide” or fetal protection laws. Courts have so far struck down these types of prosecutions, but arrests continue based on a growing body of law declaring that fetuses have rights separate from those of pregnant women. Women in the U.S. have been and continue to be the primary target of "fetal homicide" laws, because these laws dehumanize pregnant women by elevating fetal rights over women's rights. This encourages law enforcement and prosecutors to take punitive action against pregnant women. Epp's bill endangers women's rights in a similar way, by setting up a legal conflict between the personhood of women and fetuses.

11. People who help women self-abort could be prosecuted. If women try to self-abort and persuade someone to help them, the helper can be prosecuted under a fetal homicide law and suffer grave injustice. In 2005, Texas teenager Gerardo Flores was found guilty on two counts of murder and sentenced to life in prison for helping his girlfriend end her five-month pregnancy of twins. At the time, anti-abortion legislators lamented that Texas’ law would not allow prosecution of his girlfriend, too. The desperate couple had decided to self-induce an abortion because they couldn’t get one legally – Texas had recently banned abortions after 16 weeks. This shows how fetal homicide laws can seriously impact abortion rights.

12. Polls do not reflect justice or informed opinion. A recent poll in Canada, commissioned by anti-abortion group LifeCanada, found that 72% of respondents support legislation that would make it a separate crime to injure or kill a fetus during an attack on a pregnant woman. However, most people don’t realize there’s a hidden agenda against abortion behind the promotion of these laws, or that it could end up hurting pregnant women. The public would probably be much less willing to support a "fetal homicide" law if they understood its real effects.

13. Victim’s families should not determine legal remedies. Some of the victims' families have called for a "fetal homicide" law. While we deeply sympathize with them and understand their wish, it must be recognized that victims of violence are not those who should be making decisions about justice in a democratic society. Appropriate laws and penalties must be determined by impartial parties who do not allow emotion or personal bias to colour their decisions. This is done to fairly protect everyone's democratic rights, such as the rights of the accused.

14. We can impose harsher penalties for attacks on pregnant women. To achieve justice in these tragic cases, prosecutors can recommend more serious charges, such as first degree murder or aggravated assault. Judges may impose harsher penalties, and parole boards may deny parole to convicted perpetrators. We could even pass a law mandating greater penalties for attacks on pregnant women, as has been done in 13 U.S. states. These measures would provide justice, while avoiding the abortion controversy and protecting the rights of all pregnant women.

Please help spread the word.

18 comments:

M@ said...

But homicide is the leading cause of death for pregnant women and new mothers, and violence against women increases during pregnancy.

I did not know this, though I don't doubt it in the least.

This list makes a compelling case, and I was already on board. My MP's going to be wondering what's gotten into me lately -- I've been bugging him quite a bit in the last little while.

Amy said...

In the US it is pretty clear that this is always a manuever by the anti-choice wing as a step towards arguing that abortion is just another form of murder. Playing on the sympathies we feel for true crime victims to manipulate the public on the abortion issue is among many despicable things they do.

L-girl said...

But homicide is the leading cause of death for pregnant women and new mothers, and violence against women increases during pregnancy.

I did not know this, though I don't doubt it in the least.


The statistics for this are really stomach-turning. The personal stories I've heard - even more so.

I once did a big story on violence against women with disabilities. Those numbers (and stories) correlate very easily with pregnancy. The more dependent and vulnerable the woman is perceived, the worse her chances.

My MP's going to be wondering what's gotten into me lately -- I've been bugging him quite a bit in the last little while.

Cool. You know, I haven't done that here, because I felt I couldn't while I wasn't a citizen. But folks in the War Resisters Support Campaign convinced me otherwise. So here I come... :)

L-girl said...

In the US it is pretty clear that this is always a manuever by the anti-choice wing as a step towards arguing that abortion is just another form of murder.

And a very effective step, since 37 states already have some form of these laws.

A lot of people I knew heard about these laws for the first time during the Laci Petersen case. This showed me (once again) how most Americans don't realize how far things have gone, how much the anti-choicers have already won.

impudent strumpet said...

Do we have any information on why exactly violence against women increases during pregnancy? Like if it stayed the same I could see where that's coming from, but I just can't see why the abuser (who I'm going to cast as male in service of convenient pronouns) wouldn't be inclined to beat her up before she becomes pregnant, but the pregnancy would make him inclined to beat her up. If you think from the perspective of a complete and total selfish asshole, if he didn't want or didn't like the pregnancy, wouldn't he either leave or kick her out? What's his motivation for keeping her around but beating her up?

L-girl said...

If you think from the perspective of a complete and total selfish asshole, if he didn't want or didn't like the pregnancy, wouldn't he either leave or kick her out? What's his motivation for keeping her around but beating her up?

Abusers never want to kick their partner out. In fact, they are most dangerous when the abused person tries to leave - that's when s/he's at greatest risk.

Thinking about it in terms of power and control might help.

That's all I have time for right now. More later. :)

impudent strumpet said...

Is he beating her specifically to end the pregnancy then? (Again, gender stereotypes because otherwise the sentence is stupid.)

Sarah O. said...

l-girl, your most recent comment and Impudent Strumpet's questions remind me of a report from late last year, showing that teenage girls in abusive relationships reported significant amounts (1 in 4) of coercion and birth control sabotage by their abusive boyfriends, hoping to get them pregnant.

Pandagon has a post and a podcast (an interview with the researcher), but for a general idea of what the researcher found the issues were, this Salon article is pretty good.

L-girl said...

Sarah, thanks for those excellent links.

Is he beating her specifically to end the pregnancy then?

I don't think so. I think he'd be horrified at the idea.

First I should say that none of this is necessarily conscious. I don't think abusive partners have a lot of insight into why they're abusive - or even necessarily recognize that they are abusive.

Abusers need to be in control. And they're bullies - the more helpless and vulnerable the victim seems, the worse they get. I think that's where pregnancy comes in.

There's also the stress of pregnancy in household - the impending change, the (perhaps unconscious) realization that he won't be the focus of her life anymore.

[Using he and she for the same reasons as ImpStrump.]

Counselors say that if a woman makes a really big deal over it the first time she's hit - stands up for herself, reads him the riot act, makes it clear that she won't enter into a pattern of this, maybe leaves for a few days - the less likely it is that it will become a pattern. (A lot of this changes if the abuser is too drunk or drugged to remember what he's done.)

I may not be stating this too clearly. I've had a crazy long day at work. I'll see if I can be more articulate tomorrow.

L-girl said...

How does one access Salon links these days? There used to be the day pass thingy, but now you get bumped to some goofy Yahoo page, and I can't find any way into the specific story. Anyone?

Sarah O. said...

Sorry, I had the same problem with the Salon article - I noticed a red "continue on to Salon" box (or similar wording) in the top right-hand corner of the first page that loads, and it redirected to the article.

L-girl said...

Thank you Sarah! I was not seeing clearly last night...!

Excellent article.

Birth control increases women's independence. Pregnancy would increase dependence, at least for any woman not in a high-income bracket, and especially for a teenager.

And contraceptives (in the eyes of many boyfriends) would give the girl freedom to have sex with other partners. If she fears getting pregnant, perhaps she'll be less likely to sleep with anyone else.

Here's a good primer on dating violence from a women's centre. It doesn't specifically address pregnancy, but if thinking of the issues in these terms helps explain it. (I think.)

choice joyce said...

"I realize this bill has virtually no chance of becoming law, but people should know it's out there."

NO! If the bill goes to a vote which is very likely, it may indeed pass (50-50 chance, rumour has it). That's because the sneaky language may mislead many pro-choice MP's to vote for it.

This is serious stuff, we wouldn't be doing this Blogburst otherwise.

L-girl said...

Hi Joyce. I agree that it's very serious, but I don't believe it has much of a chance of passing. But it's important that people contact their MPs, regardless of the odds.

choice joyce said...

Thanks L-girl. I truly hope you're right! But may I please ask what you're basing your opinion on? As knowledgeable sources and our own calculations are telling us otherwise. (I am Joyce Arthur with ARCC.)

L-girl said...

I'm sure your sources know best.

I'm basing my opinion on speaking with activists who stay on top of Parliamentary matters, especially Liberals that they lobby. They feel the bill is a shot in the dark and will die a quick death.

But on the chance that it's 50-50 as you say, I will post again, urging readers to contact their MPs immediately. People certainly need to speak out about this, since the issue is so easily manipulated (that is, lied about).

On a personal note, I'm very glad to meet you, blog-wise. I'm was a long-time repro-rights activist in the US, including as a coordinator of the Haven Coalition, an "underground railroad" network of volunteers that helped women coming to NYC for second-tri abortions.

choice joyce said...

L-girl, I would love for you to be right, and me wrong! :-)

You may know Catherine Megill? She started Haven in NY, and I'm proud to say she's on our ARCC board now.

L-girl said...

I'm so glad you know Cat! I was going to mention her - I was wondering if you had heard of Haven through that Canadian connection. :)

When Cat left NYC, she handed the Haven reins to Shauna, and when Shauna left, I started coordinating it, on a team with two other women. We doubled the number of women we served, then doubled it again. Sadly, the need continues.