Meet the Man Behind Utah's New Law Criminalizing Miscarriages
Utah Republican Rep. Carl Wimmer doesn't hide the fact that he's working to overturn Roe v. Wade.
As Chair of the Utah Family Action Council Team, Rep. Wimmer's Web site says the legislation he's introduced or sponsored over the past few years, including the Unborn Child Pain Prevention Act, which requires doctors to inform pregnant women and girls that their fetus may experience pain during abortions, "chips away at the nation's abortion laws. We are continually working to pass pro-life legislation which will weaken Roe v. Wade."
Rep. Wimmer's latest piece of legislation, the Criminal Homicide and Abortion Revisions, which charges women and girls with murder for having miscarriages caused by an "intentional or knowing act," was signed into law this week by Utah Governor Gary Herbert. The original bill would have also included "reckless" behavior, but Rep. Wimmer removed that word to guarantee the governor's signature.
Rep. Wimmer, a former police officer, introduced the miscarriage bill after a 17-year-old from Vernal, Utah, who was seven months pregnant, paid a man $150 to beat her up after her boyfriend threatened to leave her if she didn't terminate the pregnancy. Juvenile Court Judge Larry Steele ordered her to be placed in the custody of Utah Juvenile Justice Services until she turned 21, but she was released after the judge said that under state law, "a woman who solicits or seeks to have another cause an abortion of her own unborn child cannot be criminally liable."
Rep. Wimmer is now working on what he calls "a piece of model legislation" for additional states to adopt.
In addition to chairing the Utah Family Action Council Team, Rep. Wimmer is co-founder of the Patrick Henry Caucus, an organization whose mission is to "restore and uphold the sovereignty and rights of the individual States as guaranteed by the tenth amendment of the United States Constitution." Last December, the group adopted a unanimous position "to oppose the Health Care Reform Bills, and to support a lawsuit against the federal government in order to stop the national health care bill from becoming law."
AlterNet contributor Rose Aguilar recently spoke to Rep. Wimmer about his law and its ramifications. In three wide-ranging phone conversations, they discussed how the law will be applied, the state of sex education in Utah and Rep. Wimmer's long-term agenda.
Rose Aguilar: Why did you remove the word 'reckless' from the bill?
Rep. Carl Wimmer: Clearly the rumors and what I believe are false statements had spread so far and wide. In fact, I was just on a radio show in Ohio; we're all over the country with this thing. I'm a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and it was my intention to take this bill and present it there as a piece of model legislation that other states can adopt. They're not going to adopt something that has so much rumor and controversy surrounding it, so I'm taking "reckless" out of the bill. I'll address that later in the year. For now, we'll keep "intentional" or "knowingly."
RA: What scenarios would fall under this law?
CW: The situation that happened in Vernal. There was a horrific case where a woman used a very, very thick sharp implementation to stab her stomach to kill the child. That would be covered. The intentional killing of the unborn child is what would be covered.
RA: What about a woman who falls down the stairs? What about a woman whose abusive partner hits her? What about a drug addict?
CW: I don't think they would have been covered in the original bill. It was a fear tactic spread by those who opposed the bill no matter what.
RA: Would a cocaine addict who lost her child be prosecuted under this law?
CW: Not anymore. That was the policy issue I was trying to cover under the term "reckless" because of that action. Not anymore. A cocaine addict wouldn't be covered under this law.
RA: So you're saying a woman who harms herself would fall under this law.
CW: Yeah, it's fairly narrow. The bill, as it is written now, is narrowly defined.
RA: And you're planning to spread this across the country?
CW: Yeah, absolutely.
RA: Are you talking with anyone specific about it?
CW: I can't talk about that right now.
RA: So if your law had been on the books last year and the 17-year-old girl's fetus had died, she would have been charged under the new law?
RA: Under your bill, she would go to jail for 15 years to life?
CW: If the baby died, she would.
RA: And you're OK with that? You're OK with sending a 17-year-old girl to jail? Why not focus on why this happened in the first place? Why not focus on helping the girl?
CW: I don't think the two issues are mutually exclusive, protecting the life of the unborn and finding out why this happened. Some people are so ideologically driven on this issue. They say, "OK, we should never restrict a pregnant woman. We should give her resources." The other side says, "Forget about the pregnant woman. We need to save the baby." I don't view these issues as mutually exclusive. She should have been in counseling. She should have been in a course to find out how to deal with teen pregnancy. I agree with that concept. Protecting the unborn is not mutually exclusive to making sure girls have resources.
RA: What went through your mind when you first heard about the extreme measures this young girl went through to end her pregnancy?
CW: It was a tragic situation. How did this girl ever get in the situation? How did she ever make the choice that led her to desperate action? How low of a person would you have to be to accept money to beat a pregnant girl? Those were my initial thoughts.
RA: I'm still trying to understand what you think your bill would accomplish. Why not try to answer those questions? Why not reach out to her and try to help?
CW: There has to be consequences for the actions you choose regardless of the situation you're in. We should not make excuses for a woman who decides to beat her 7-month unborn child. This child can live outside the womb. She paid someone to beat that baby to death. We should not put our hands up in the air.
RA: So you're OK knowing that she would go to jail?
CW: I'm OK with her facing the consequences of her barbaric actions.
RA: For a minimum of 15 years? If she got 15 years, she wouldn't be out until she was 32.
CW: Because she was 17, she would most likely only be in jail until she became an adult unless a prosecutor tried her as an adult. That's out of our hands.
RA: Shouldn't we be focusing on doing whatever it takes to make sure this doesn't happen again?
CW: There's the key question. We have sex education and I believe it's effective. We also have the ability for women to get abortions. What we lack as a society, I believe, is further resources for young women who make these decisions or make these mistakes and get pregnant. We need resources, counseling, and the things they need to help get them through these situations. I think we have the front end covered with sex education. We have the back end covered with abortion, although I don't believe that's the appropriate response. We need to break out of our box and think about what we can do to aid these women and these girls. A lot of it comes down to education.
RA: Let's talk about education. This girl didn't have resources. She didn't have sex-ed in school and there's no clinic in her area. The Senate recently refused to even talk about a bill to offer sex-ed in Utah with a parent's permission.
CW: Sex-ed is taught in our schools. We have abstinence based sex-ed. Utah is in the bottom of the nation when it comes to teens with STDs. When it comes to teen pregnancy, we're near the bottom. What hasn't served us well is a point where a young woman decides to have sex and get pregnant. Where is the counseling at that point? Comprehensive sex-ed has failed. The problem is counseling for girls when they are pregnant.
RA: California has comprehensive sex-ed and a new report from the Department of Health found that teen births hit a record low in 2008, so it's clearly working.
CW: That's fantastic. Anything that brings teen pregnancy rates down is a good thing. I would be open to discussions on whatever it would take. I'm not convinced that government is necessarily the answer here. There are so many community resources. We just need to expand them. We need pregnancy resource centers to dot the country.
RA: Why not give teens the most information we can so they can protect themselves? There are five new chlamydia cases in Utah every day. The fact is, teens are having sex. Why not try to help them? Young kids in your state are fighting for sex-ed. I interviewed a young girl who surveyed high school students. They're having sex and most of them don't have enough information to protect themselves from pregnancy and STDs. Yet when she and her friends went to Capital Hill to advocate for sex-ed, the Senate refused to even talk about it. The kids were ignored. Why not work with them?
CW: I'm one of the most accessible and open representatives. I'm conservative, but I have never shut out Democrats or liberals from talking with me. It would take a lot to sway me; however, I would not come into this with a closed mind. I'm open to talking about it.
RA: The bill the Senate wouldn't even debate would've required parental permission. Would you vote for that?
CW: I'm not 100 percent sure that's a bad thing. As long as the parent is fully aware and fully in control of what is being taught. That must be the case.
RA: What is your ultimate goal? Do you want to make abortion illegal?
CW: The goal is to overturn Roe v. Wade, which would allow states more authority to make a decision on abortion. We toy around the edges on this issue because we're mandated to allow it by the federal government. The overturning of Roe is a definite goal. I don't know if this will happen in my lifetime, but I won't stop trying.
RA: Will you ever try to overturn abortion in Utah?
CW: Yes, but there would have to be the appropriate make-up of the court in order to even try to do that. I'm not sure the make-up of the [U.S.] Supreme Court is there or not. It would depend on where [Justice Anthony] Kennedy was. I also want to say something else. I get hammered because I'm a man and I'm running these bills. It's important to note that the vast majority of the women in the legislature voted for my bill. I have a female sponsor in the senate. She was the sponsor in the senate. In fact, the majority of Democrats voted for this bill. It's not necessarily a right-wing ideological issue. It's something that pragmatists can come together on.
RA: Let's say you get your way. Abortion is illegal or almost impossible to come by in many countries and they have huge mortality rates. Every year, 19 million women and girls have unsafe abortions. Nearly 70,000 die. If a woman doesn't want to be pregnant, she'll do whatever it takes to end the pregnancy.
CW: That wouldn't happen. Very simply put, overturning Roe would give states more authority -- states like Utah or any of the southern states that don't want the federal government forcing them to abort unborn children. If a woman wants an abortion, there would be sources and plenty of states that would still allow it. It's a key state sovereignty issue. Overturning Roe does not outlaw abortion. It gives states back the authority to make that decision. States that allow abortion such as New York or California would still function just like they do now. It would allow states like Utah to restrict it more than we can right now.
RA: You say you care about life, so what programs will you put in place to make sure all of those children have a decent life?
CW: I'm not sure the government needs to be doing that. There are plenty of volunteer organizations that help. We need to work hard to get resources where they need to be. We might need to look at rural areas. We definitely need to make sure that counseling is in place for young women who get pregnant.
RA: But what responsibility do we as a society have to take care of these children, especially the unwanted children? Not all children are wanted. And all of our resources here in California are completely drained. I recently did a show about school budget cuts and heard from teachers who are seeing more and more homeless children in the classroom. I interviewed a young girl who has no desk. Kids are sitting on the floor. The food banks are struggling. People are losing their jobs. Families are losing their homes. We're facing major problems with no end in sight.
CW: You ask a good question. I don't know. You look at it with the screen over your eyes in California and I look at it in Utah.
RA: But as a country, what should we be doing to ensure our children have decent lives? People are really suffering.
CW: Your solution versus my solution is different. I don't believe it's the government's job to take care of people because if they did, they would do it at the detriment of other people. I've seen this firsthand, where government takes food out of one kid's mouth and gives it to another. The community has to step up. The citizens have to step up. Organizations have to step up. This is not something that government should be doing.
RA: So there's endless money for the military, prisons and banks, but none for average people. And none for children?
CW: I could not agree with you more on the bank bailouts. You and I can walk hand in hand on that one. I disagree with you on the military and prisons. The proper role of government is to protect certain inalienable rights: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Government does not give rights and they're not supposed to be taking rights away. They are to protect rights that are innate in every person.
RA: You just said government isn't supposed to take rights away. Then why are you taking away my reproductive rights?
CW: Because you're taking away a life. If I believe that an unborn child is life and I do believe that, then as a government official, not only should I take steps to protect that life, but I am obligated to try to restrict abortion because I believe it takes an innocent life.
RA: Do you believe in the death penalty?
CW: I do.
RA: How can you be pro-death penalty and against what you say is taking an innocent life? You know that innocent people have been killed on death row.
CW: Because we are protecting the innocent. It's not illogical to be pro-life and pro-death penalty.
RA: As you know, your law is receiving international attention and widespread condemnation. What message would you send to people, especially women, who are outraged by this? People who can't understand why you would throw a girl in jail rather than get to the root of the problem?
CW: This law will not be enforced very often. It'll be a very rare circumstance when this occurs. There's no need to fear this particular law. However, I believe it sends a message. If you're going to engage in adult activity and make the choice to get pregnant, I would hope you would think twice before you make another bad decision to try to kill that child. If you feel that abortion is the one thing you need to do, you need to make that decision appropriately. I would hope this law sends a message of personal responsibility.
RA: If you believe everyone who has sex is an adult, then why not give them comprehensive sex-ed and the resources they need so they can prevent unwanted pregnancies?
CW: I hate to be rude or sound rude. I'll be very respectful here. When I was 10 years old, I knew how to access condoms. I didn't have to have anybody tell me. I had parents who talked to me.
RA: But not every parent talks to their kids about sex. I have an amazing relationship with my mom and she never talked to me about sex.
CW: I understand that. I am wiling to sit down and discuss the necessity for better sex education. I'm not putting up a barrier to that conversation. I'm not going to disagree with you.
RA: What's next moving forward?
CW: I'm going to push the pro-life agenda and the pro-life causes. I'm going to take this bill to the American Legislative Exchange Council and try to get it submitted as a national model.