Remee Jo Lee and Heather Surovik live in different states, likely wouldn’t recognize each other’s names, and probably won’t ever meet. But the two women have one big thing in common: They want justice for their unborn children, and they’re pushing their lawmakers to do something about it. Although they may not realize it, their campaigns are allowing the radical “personhood” movement — which seeks to endow embryos with all the rights that accompany U.S. citizenship — to gain a foothold.
Lee and Surovik both experienced personal tragedies that ended their pregnancies against their will. Lee lost her 6-week-old embryo after her boyfriend at the time tricked her into taking an abortion-inducing drug without her knowledge. Surovik miscarried when she was eight months pregnant after a drunk driver smashed into her car.
Both perpetrators were sentenced to over a decade in prison — Lee’s ex-boyfriend is currently serving a 13-year sentence, and the driver who collided with Surovik committed suicide after facing up to 20 years. But the grieving mothers still haven’t found peace.
The women are both upset that their home states of Florida and Colorado, respectively, didn’t prosecute their cases as homicide. They say that they suffered a horrible tragedy that went unrecognized in the eyes of the law.
Along with at least 36 other states, Florida and Colorado both have fetal homicide laws on the books that allow criminal penalties for crimes involving pregnant women. But those laws are typically carefully crafted to define the crime in terms of the pregnancy and the harm done to the pregnant women, since giving equal weight to the woman and her fetus is a tricky legislative area. Reproductive rights advocates warn that this type of legislation can easily slip into a justification to restrict abortion. Many laws, like Florida’s, specify that the fetus has to be a certain gestational age to fall under these penal codes.
Lee and Surovik aren’t interested in those careful legal distinctions. For them, this feels personal and painful.
“There were two victims here,” Surovik explained in a recent interview with NBC. “My son wasn’t a loss of a pregnancy — he was a person, an eight-pound boy.”
“This has just been the most devastating experience for me… This has just been very, very hard and I never want anyone else to go through this ever again and I want the state of Florida to show that this is not acceptable,” Lee said at a Florida Senate hearing this week.
So both women have issued a call to action. Lee is asking Florida lawmakers to support a new bill to expand the state’s criminal penalties for crimes against pregnant women to every stage in their pregnancy. And Surovik is partnering with the national anti-choice group Personhood USA to ask voters to approve the “Brady Amendment” — named after her unborn son — to amend the state constitution to protect “pregnant mothers and their unborn children from criminal offenses and negligent and wrongful acts.”
Although the two grieving women’s stories are personally compelling, reproductive health advocates don’t mince words about the potential threat posed by fetal homicide legislation.
“This measure would make every pregnant woman the potential perpetrator of a violent crime — whether she has an abortion, experiences a pregnancy loss, or goes to term having done anything including smoking a cigarette that someone views as creating a risk to the fertilized egg, embryo or fetus,” Lynn Paltrow, the executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, told NBC News in reference to the Brady Amendment.
“It is a personhood law. It will be used to ban abortion,” Vicki Cowart, the president of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, added.
The sponsor of Florida’s new bill, state Sen. Kelli Stargel (R), has emphasized that her new legislation is specifically not intended to apply to abortion. Stargel’s measure is narrower than the Brady Amendment, but opponents still argue that the definitions of of the crimes in question are too broad.
As a movement, fetal personhood tends to divide the anti-choice community. The radical stance that zygotes should be defined as citizens, which would ban all abortions and even some types of contraception, is too far-right for some abortion opponents who favor taking an incremental approach to slowly chipping away at Roe v. Wade. Although personhood proponents have gotten constitutional amendments on the ballots in several states — including three separate times in Colorado — they’ve been largely unsuccessful. Focusing on criminal law is a fresh approach for them, even if it threatens to muddle the message a little bit. In fact, some personhood supporters in Colorado didn’t initially realize that the Brady Amendment accomplished their goals.
But harmful policies often lurk behind initiatives that claim to be concerned about keeping women safe. Although there’s no doubt that Lee and Surovik are simply seeking justice, their legislative crusades are awfully convenient for the anti-choice community — and actually threaten to harm pregnant women across the country.