Lawmakers in Colorado — the state that has emerged as ground zero for the movement to redefine life as beginning at conception — won’t stop trying to pass a radical “personhood” law to severely roll back abortion rights. And, in the aftermath of a tragic crime that was committed against a pregnant woman last month, they might finally gain some traction after years of failed attempts.
This week, Republicans in the state introduced a measure that would allow the state to bring murder charges in crimes that result in a loss of a pregnancy — effectively endowing fetuses with the same rights as Colorado citizens in the state’s criminal code, and paving the way to enshrine personhood into law.
The measure stipulates that “the term ‘person’ includes an unborn child at every stage of gestation from conception until live birth.” It clarifies that charges should not be applied to acts committed by the pregnant person or to “medical procedures,” although it does not explicitly reference abortion.
The lawmakers sponsoring the measure say that it is not a personhood law and it effectively protects abortion rights. But reproductive rights proponents are particularly wary of codifying the idea that personhood begins at conception, which they say will ultimately make it easier to outlaw abortion and even some types of birth control.
Colorado’s new bill was introduced in direct response to a recent tragedy in the state. In March, Michelle Wilkins, who was seven months pregnant at the time, was brutally attacked after she responded to a Craigslist ad for baby clothes. A stranger slashed Wilkins’ stomach and removed her fetus from inside of her — a rare and grisly crime known as “womb raiding.” The woman who committed the assault, Dynel Lane, pretended the fetus was her own and told her husband that she had a miscarriage.
Lane was charged with attempted first-degree murder and first-degree unlawful termination of a pregnancy, but she did not face a murder charge because coroners determined that Wilkins’ fetus was not viable outside the womb, since it did not have the lung capacity to breathe on its own. Republican lawmakers were outraged about the absence of murder charges and immediately pledged to introduce a bill to stiffen the penalties for committing crimes against fetuses.
“This was a child. A child was murdered,” Senate President Bill Cadman (R) said in statement after the charges were handed down. “That Coloradans have no way to hold the murderer responsible, or deliver justice for the victims, is a gap in Colorado’s justice system which can no longer be ignored.”
Other lawmakers had even stronger responses to the tragedy. State Rep. Gordon Klingenschmitt (R) said that the brutal attack on the pregnant woman was God’s punishment for legal abortion, claiming that the crime represented “the curse of God upon America for our sin of not protecting innocent children in the womb.”
It’s clear that the major anti-abortion groups in the state are eager to capitalize on the crime to push their personhood agenda. Personhood USA, which is based in Colorado, has been tracking the recent news as evidence of Colorado’s “legal failure” in fetal homicide cases. “The parents of these unborn babies deserve justice, and as long as Colorado law claims that their children’s lives don’t matter, justice will not be served,” Jennifer Mason, a spokesperson for Personhood USA, said in March.
It’s not the first time that the organization has used this framing. Grieving mothers who want justice for their unborn children have become symbols in the personhood cause. Last year, a similar situation played out with a proposed ballot initiative in Colorado. Like the new legislation proposed this week, that measure would have expanded the Colorado Criminal Code and Wrongful Death Act to include “unborn human beings.” Proponents of personhood said it was necessary in light of a tragedy that befell Colorado resident Heather Surovik, who miscarried at eight months of pregnancy when a drunk driver crashed into her car.
Surovik’s story was certainly compelling; in honor of the unborn son she lost, the personhood initiative was dubbed the “Brady Amendment.” But concerns about the potentially far-reaching implications of changing the criminal code still prevailed. Colorado voters resoundingly defeated the measure in November, marking the third time that residents of the state have rejected personhood.
Wilkins’ story — which is considerably more gruesome and, in many ways, even more upsetting — might lead to a different outcome in the state legislature. “With this latest crime used as another plank in the fetal personhood argument, extreme abortion opponents may be able to gain traction where they couldn’t before,” reporter Robin Marty wrote in Talking Points Memo last month.
Colorado actually already has a fetal homicide law on the books that allows for criminal penalties in assaults that harm a pregnancy. That policy is carefully crafted — specifying that “nothing in this act shall be construed to confer personhood, or any rights associated with that status, on a human being at any time prior to live birth” — to ensure it doesn’t end up veering into a complicated legal arena that equates the rights of women with the rights of fetuses. To avoid potential threats to reproductive rights, Planned Parenthood helped politicians write that legislation.
Abortion rights groups have been growing increasingly concerned about fetal homicide laws, which are currently in place in at least 38 states. Although it is possible to strike a delicate balance between prosecuting crimes against pregnant women and preserving abortion rights, as Colorado’s current law attempts to do, many of the existing state laws are not as circumspect. Currently, 23 states allow their fetal homicide laws to apply to the earliest stages of pregnancy, by using terms like “any state of gestation,” “conception,” “fertilization,” or “post-fertilization.”
To women’s health advocates, those terms prove that this area is being used as a foothold to advance an anti-choice agenda. Plus, leading anti-abortion groups like Americans United for Life have been actively involved in encouraging states to pass broader protections for pregnant women who become the victims of violent crime.
“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 last year.
Plus, even though these laws are supposed to allow states to prosecute third parties who commit crimes against pregnant women, there’s a well-documented history of states wielding them against pregnant women themselves. For instance, an Indiana woman currently faces 20 years behind bars for what she says was a miscarriage because state officials allege that she intentionally murdered her unborn child. When states like Colorado attempt to expand their existing fetal harm laws, it becomes more likely that other women will wind up behind bars, too.
Despite the disturbing nature of the assault against Michelle Wilkins, pro-choice lawmakers in the state are opposed to the effort to enshrine personhood into law.
“I am disappointed that the Republicans are choosing to use what happened to the Wilkins family to get ‘personhood’ into law,” state Sen. Pat Steadman (D) said in a statement in response to the GOP bill. “What occurred in Longmont was horrible, and the perpetrator deserves to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, which if found guilty could result in a sentence of over 100 years in prison. Using this tragedy to promote new laws that Colorado voters have soundly rejected is out of bounds.”