A proposed Utah law that would open women who suffer a miscarriage to possible criminal prosecution and life imprisonment has enraged feminists and civil rights activists across the United States.
Adopted overwhelmingly by both sides of the state legislature in Salt Lake City earlier this month, the draft bill is now awaiting the signature of the state’s Republican Governor, Gary Herbert. It is not clear if the growing national controversy surrounding the proposed law will slow or even stay his pen.
While the main thrust of the law is to enable prosecutors in the majority-Mormon state to pursue women who seek illegal, unsupervised forms of abortion, it includes a provision that could trigger murder charges against women found guilty of an “intentional, knowing or reckless act” that leads to a miscarriage. Some say this could include drinking one glass of wine too many, walking on an icy pavement or skiing.
Lawmakers were responding to the case of a 17-year-old pregnant Utah woman who paid a man $150 to assault her physically in the hope that the beating would cause her to miscarry. The child was born anyway and put up for adoption. And while the man involved is currently behind bars, prosecutors found they had no basis in state law to prosecute the young woman. She was in her seventh month when she tried to terminate her pregnancy.
Last-minute efforts to remove reference in the bill to “reckless” acts failed, feeding the uproar about a law that some people say would be impossible to implement and threatens basic freedoms of women. Statistics suggest that 15 to 20 per cent of recognised pregnancies end in miscarriage. “This creates a law that makes any pregnant woman who has a miscarriage potentially criminally liable for murder,” said Missy Bird, director of Planned Parenthood Action Fund of Utah, part of the national organisation that champions abortion rights.
Critics also note that the bill has no exemptions for women who suffer domestic abuse or who have addiction problems. They wonder, for example, about the putative case of a woman remaining with an abusive partner and suffering a miscarriage after an episode of violence. Would remaining in that relationship constitute “reckless” behaviour, they ask?