Utah Continues Reckless Efforts to Lock Up Pregnant Women


On Thursday, a Utah legislator withdrew a bill that would have allowed sentences of up to life in prison for a woman who experienced a miscarriage or stillbirth as a result of her “reckless” behavior. This move has been attributed to a “firestorm” of opposition. Almost immediately, however, Utah legislators revised the bill to exempt women who commit reckless acts but to permit the prosecution of women who commit “knowing” acts that may result in stillbirths and miscarriages from the earliest stages of pregnancy.

What does this mean? Under this bill, pregnant women who “know” that their cancer medications or other prescription medications could risk harm or cause pregnancy loss could still be arrested. Pregnant women who stay with abusive husbands who they “know” to be angry about the pregnancy could still be arrested under this law. Pregnant women who continue working in jobs they “know” pose hazards to their pregnancies could still be arrested under the law. And even pregnant women who “know” from reading the side of their cigarette packages that smoking is hazardous to their pregnancies could be arrested under this law.

Representative Wimmer, the bill’s sponsor, has assured critics that the bill would only be applied “in the most glaring of cases.” But whatever his intention, cases from around the country demonstrate that once law enforcement officials have the discretion to arrest, and judges have the opportunity to interpret the law, legislators no longer have control. In fact there have already been cases where government officials seeking to protect the “unborn” have sought to keep pregnant women from obtaining cancer treatment.

Moreover, sending the message that what women “know” and do while pregnant may be a crime also influences how doctors and nurses treat pregnant women. They become less likely to help women and more likely to judge them. In Iowa, it was a health care provider who called the police when a distraught pregnant woman sought help after she fell down a flight of stairs. The young woman was arrested for “attempted feticide.” The police eventually withdrew the charge but only after this young mother had been taken into custody, spent several days in jail and several weeks terrified about what was going to happen next.

If the Utah bill becomes law, a pregnant woman whose health care provider reports her to the police will not be comforted by the fact that, eventually, someone might decide that her actions were merely “reckless” and not “knowing.”

Some supporters of the bill would claim that this bill is really just about punishing women who intentionally seek to “self-abort.” For people who profoundly oppose abortion, it seems logical that legislation could be carefully crafted to distinguish between pregnant women who seek to terminate their pregnancies and those who do not. Criminal laws, however, depend on application of intent standards and are enforced by police officers and prosecutors who have extraordinary discretion in deciding who will and will not be arrested. Because everything a pregnant woman does or does not do can affect pregnancy outcome, it is hard to come up with an example of a law that could be applied only to women who “truly” intend to end their pregnancies while ensuring that pregnant women who do not intend to terminate their pregnancies or risk harm to their fetuses are protected from police investigation, interrogation, arrest, and prosecution.

Even if this Utah bill were carefully crafted (and it is not), its main purpose clearly is not to advance a culture of life, but rather to advance laws that permit imprisonment of pregnant women. The description of the bill explains its purpose as removing “prohibitions against prosecution” of women. In other words – Utah apparently aspires to be the first state to admit that the purpose of an anti-abortion law is not to stop doctors from performing abortions, but to lock-up women who have them.

In fact, this bill was created out of frustration that no law existed that could be used to imprison a 17-year-old girl. According to its sponsor, Utah’s HB 462 was passed to respond to a case in which a desperate a pregnant teenager hired someone to attack her and cause her to lose the pregnancy. It should be clear, however, that any young woman who is desperate enough to invite violence against her – violence that could have caused her own death — is not going to be deterred by this law.

Imprisoning this teenager who survived and gave birth to a healthy baby would cost taxpayers approximately $30,000 a year. If the real purpose of the law were to prevent this kind of thing from happening again, the state could invest, for example, in Backline, an organization that could provide non-judgmental counseling to women struggling with their pregnancies.

The real purpose of the Utah bill, however, is to make it possible to police pregnant women and to imprison them as murderers. That deserves a firestorm of opposition as well.

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