On Thursday, a Senate committee in South Carolina voted to expand the state’s so-called “Stand Your Ground” law to approve the use of deadly force to protect a fetus. The proposal would grant pregnant women protection from prosecution if they were defending their “unborn children,” defined as “the offspring of human beings from conception until birth.”
Proponents of the legislation claim that it’s necessary because the state’s current Stand Your Ground law isn’t broad enough. Although South Carolina already authorizes deadly force to protect against “imminent peril of death or great bodily injury,” some Republican lawmakers argue that doesn’t go far enough to protect pregnant women from all of the physical attacks that may harm their fetus, like being punched in the stomach.
Critics, on the other hand, believe it’s simply redundant. They also warn that granting more legal protections to fetuses, and defining life as beginning at conception, could end up threatening reproductive rights.
“There is some evidence that abortion opponents have been pursuing fetal homicide laws because they hope it will undermine abortion rights. It seems to be part of their overall strategy,” Elizabeth Nash, the states policy manager for the Guttmacher Institute, told ThinkProgress. Indeed, this back-door strategy to advance “personhood” has started to pop up in states around the country.
At least 36 states have fetal homicide laws that allow for the prosecution of crimes against pregnant women that resulted in the loss of a fetus. This legislation is typically carefully crafted to specify that abortion isn’t included, and avoids giving equal rights to fetuses by defining the crime in terms of the harm done to the pregnant women. But anti-choice groups like Americans United for Life continue to encourage states to pass broader protections in this area. “Americans United for Life has been at the forefront of developing and defending legislation to protect pregnant women and their unborn children from violent crime,” the group notes.
“No one wants to deny someone the right to defend themselves if they’re being attacked. But the question is how to do that effectively — and without going down the path of granting personhood to fetuses, which could run into the right to abortion,” Nash pointed out.
Stand Your Ground legislation, which allowed George Zimmerman to escape jail time after shooting and killing Trayvon Martin, is already incredibly controversial. These laws promote vigilantism, since a person who could reasonably retreat to safety is instead encouraged to shoot. They have also exacerbated the existing racial disparities in the criminal justice system. White-on-black homicides are 354 percent more likely to be ruled justified than white-on-white homicides.
And it’s not clear that this type of law would do anything whatsoever to keep pregnant women safer. Escalating a violent situation, rather than retreating, could put women and their fetuses in more harm. Although gun supporters often claim that women need weapons to protect themselves against attackers and abusers, introducing deadly force into a domestic dispute is actually more likely to leave women dead. Many women are shot and killed with their own guns.
Two other states, Arkansas and Oklahoma, also authorize deadly force to allow pregnant women to defend themselves. A similar proposal was introduced in South Dakota in 2011, but was ultimately defeated after opponents raised concerns that it could end up sanctioning the murder of abortion providers. According to Nash, this may the first time that lawmakers have so explicitly linked Stand Your Ground with fetal homicide.