ANNAPOLIS – A Harford lawmaker worked to disentangle his bill to punish a person who causes the death of a pregnant woman’s fetus from the abortion debate in hearings this week in the House Judiciary Committee.
Legislators heard testimony on HB 398, a bill to make it a crime of murder, unlawful homicide or manslaughter to kill an unborn fetus. The bill, which is identical to one last year, excludes abortions performed by a licensed physician.
Delegate Charles Boutin, R-Harford, said he sponsored the bill after realizing that there was a gap in the law protecting fetuses in his jurisdiction. Many of his constituents, a significant number of them in the military, enjoy the protection on federal land and property, but no state law addresses the rest.
The Maryland Catholic Conference supports the bill but wants an amendment that would change the bill to protect all fetuses.
But Boutin who said he doesn’t believe in abortion, said he cannot support such a change.
“As a practicing Catholic, I would oppose such a change because it takes it out of being a victim’s rights bill,” he said, “to an abortion bill.”
There have been amendments suggested for the bill that would separate it from the abortion debate, said Delegate Luis Simmons, D-Montgomery.
But he said, “Feminist groups seem to be divided on the amendments.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, Planned Parenthood of Maryland and NARAL Pro-Choice America of Maryland have recommended four amendments that Boutin said he would support.
The amendments seek to tailor the bill to ensure mothers aren’t punished. For example, it would prevent a woman from being penalized if she doesn’t receive adequate prenatal care and her baby dies, said Mindy Binderman, an ACLU lobbyist.
While the ACLU of Maryland has recommended the changes to the bill to make it in keeping with Roe v. Wade and Maryland state law, Binderman said, they are not in favor of the legislation.
“We would not support it, but with the amendments it would be less objectionable and we would withdraw our opposition,” she said.
The legislation makes sense, said Delegate Herbert McMillan, R-Anne Arundel.
“If a woman has made a choice to have a baby,” he said. “I would think pro-choice organizations would support this legislation.”
Not so, said the president of Maryland NOW.
“We are against any piece of legislation that either directly limits a women’s right to choose or has language in it that would affect a women’s right to choose,” Duchy Trachtenberg said.
It is a health policy issue, she said, that the legislation would unfairly penalize women, specifically those who abuse drugs and alcohol.
The real intent of the bill, the House Judiciary Committee chairman said, is to provide justice in Laci Peterson-type cases.
Peterson, who was pregnant with her unborn son, Connor, was murdered in December 2003. Under California law, Peterson’s husband was prosecuted for two counts of murder. In 2004, the federal government passed a similar measure applicable to crimes on federal property.
There were 637 fetal deaths and 435 neonatal deaths in the state in 2003 according to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s Office of Vital Statistics. Those numbers do not differentiate between death from natural causes or homicides.
But attacks on pregnant women are up, said Delegate Darryl Kelley, D-Prince George’s.
“That is a real problem,” Kelley said. “We do have to establish stiffer penalties for people who do commit crimes against pregnant women.”