The National Organization for Women (NOW) is urging its Maryland members to speak out against a rush to judgment in the Ocean City stillbirth case.
Christy Freeman is being charged under a 2005 state “fetal homicide” law that makes it illegal to kill “a viable fetus,” despite a provision in the law that was intended to protect pregnant women from prosecution for actions that result in their own fetus’ death, such as abortion.
NOW strongly opposes these kinds of fetal homicide laws because they have the potential to undermine a woman’s right to make reproductive decisions, even when the law specifically states that the pregnant woman’s actions are not covered. This case is a perfect example: the Maryland law states that it does not apply to a pregnant woman’s actions that harm her fetus, yet she is being prosecuted under the law anyway. In many states, such laws are being used to prosecute women who consume alcohol or take drugs during pregnancy.
“Fetal harm laws are all too often used not as a safeguard but as a club, to punish women who already have two strikes against them,” says NOW President Kim Gandy. “A punitive approach to substance abuse by pregnant women is unwarranted; a medical and therapeutic answer is more appropriate and should be the proper focus of such laws.”
Extremists opposed to abortion and birth control use fetal harm laws to advance their own goals, by playing upon the natural sympathy for violently injured pregnant women. But instead of advancing laws that actually protect women, they push to have a fetus recognized in law as an autonomous person. That legal definition ultimately enables the government to prosecute women who undertake any activity, such as smoking, that could harm their fetus.
In the 30 states where these kinds of bills have been passed, the incidence of violence against pregnant women has not decreased but rather it has increased. In the 30 states where these kinds of bills have been enacted, the prosecution of pregnant women who have taken drugs or consumed alcohol has increased tremendously. Research data show that a woman who is in an abusive relationship and a woman abusing substances are often one and the same person. Why pass laws that do not prevent violence but instead punish vulnerable women?
Maryland NOW’s president Terry O’Neill cautions that right-wing talk radio and Internet chatter shouldn’t be allowed to sensationalize this tragedy. “We know the radical right won’t stop until abortion is legally defined as murder,” O’Neill says. “It is unacceptable that women who need help are invisible until calamity strikes – and then they are considered criminal. Responding to the Christy Freeman tragedy is a job for social services, not the D.A.”