Iulia Filip

South Carolina Lawmakers Propose 'Stand Your Fetus Ground' Law

COLUMBIA, S.C. (CN) - Unborn children would receive constitutional rights beginning at conception under a "Stand Your Ground" law that allows women in South Carolina to use lethal force against anyone threatening their fetuses.
     The South Carolina Senate Judiciary Subcommittee voted 3-2 this month to expand the state's "Stand Your Ground" law to include protections for unborn babies.
     The bill defines an "unborn child" as "the offspring of human beings from conception until birth."
     People may use deadly force to protect themselves and others against the threat of "imminent peril of death or great bodily injury" under the state's current law.
     Supporters of the "Pregnant Women's Protection Act" claimed that without this law, pregnant women could face attacks that may cause them to miscarry, but that might not justify the use of lethal force.
     The "Pregnant Women's Protection Act," sponsored by state Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, was debated at the same time as two other bills that sought to grant personhood to embryos.
     Opponents, including organizations providing women's health services, are concerned that the bill is designed to take away women's access to birth control, in-vitro fertilization, emergency contraception and other basic healthcare options.
     "It could outlaw contraception, any form of hormonal birth control, and emergency contraception that is usually given to victims of rape," Emma Davidson, a spokeswoman for New Morning Foundation, told Courthouse News.
     "It would also have implications for in-vitro fertilization, which involves being able to work in the time frame that this bill would impact. It would make it financially unrealistic for any clinic to practice it in that time frame."
     Columbia-based New Morning Foundation is a nonprofit working for young people's reproductive health education, counseling, and clinical services throughout South Carolina.
     "No one disputes that violence against pregnant women is a concern in our state, and few would deny the need for swift action to stop any instances of further violence," Davidson said. "But it is hypocritical to introduce legislation claiming to protect victims of domestic abuse, rape and violence while simultaneously outlawing emergency contraception, a key treatment option for those victims."
     Davidson said "personhood" bills are introduced every year in South Carolina, but have failed to pass into law.
     "These bills like to define a human being as a 'person' at fertilization, which would create a variety of restrictions that would limit the reproductive and family building choices of hundreds of thousands of South Carolina residents," said Dr. Michael Slowey, a reproductive endocrinologist and founder of Coastal Fertility Specialists in Mount Pleasant. "Specifically, these bills would put an end to our ability to perform in-vitro fertilization, provide contraception and effectively treat abnormal pregnancies, including life-threatening ectopic pregnancies."
     Marcia Zug, a University of South Carolina law professor, testified during the state Senate hearing on a companion bill that had similar language on life defined as beginning at conception.
     "This bill is not a direct challenge to abortion, but certainly it has a lot of support from people who are hoping it would challenge it," Zug said about the Stand Your Ground for your fetus bill.
     "We would have for the first time a law that specifically defines pregnancy and life as beginning at conception, and that is very important language for people who want to ban abortion - which would then be equated with murder," Zug said.
     The other two bills that would give human embryos the same rights as humans did not make it to a vote before the Senate panel adjourned.
     "This bill is unnecessary for any reason other than to challenge the legality of abortion," Zug said. "South Carolina already has a very robust Stand Your Ground law. There was the argument that there is a possibility that a woman could be defending her unborn child but not her own life. Most attacks that would harm a fetus would be [dangerous] enough to harm a woman and she would be able to use current protections.
     "Women don't know when they conceive," she added. "There is a period there when a woman doesn't know she's pregnant, so she wouldn't be able to use the new protections in that period of time."
     Elizabeth Nash, state issues manager at reproductive health nonprofit Guttmacher Institute in Washington, said the bill, although not a direct challenge to abortion or contraception, could be part of a strategy to ban these rights.
     "We've seen these bills before," Nash said in a telephone interview. "There are similar laws in effect in Oklahoma and Arkansas, but what makes the South Carolina bill so different is that it's the first time this sort of bill would be added into the Stand Your Ground law."
     Some other states' bills include provisions that pregnant women can protect themselves by using lethal force if they are attacked. At least 23 states, including South Carolina, have fetal homicide laws that apply to the earliest stages of pregnancy and provide for increased criminal penalties for crimes against pregnant women. These laws, however, focus on the harm done to a pregnant woman, not on the rights of the fetus.
     "The South Carolina bill also creates this definition of unborn child which essentially grants personhood at fertilization," Nash said. "The message here is that abortion opponents would take any spot in the statute to promote this idea that a fetus is a person. Part of this is to create some statutory language around when personhood begins, and the hope is that eventually abortion would be banned and that these laws would have helped to make this happen."
     Nash said the bill is redundant, because South Carolina's "Stand Your Ground" law already allows people to protect themselves by using lethal force.
     "This is all about politics and rhetoric," she said.
     In March, state Rep. Harold Mitchell, D-Spartanburg, backed by former law enforcement officials, introduced a bill to repeal South Carolina's "Stand Your Ground" law. That proposal would eliminate the right to use deadly force against someone perceived as a threat in a public space, limiting the "Stand Your Ground" legal defense to those defending their homes, cars and businesses.
     Sen. Shealy, the sponsor of the Stand Your Fetus' Ground bill, and state Sen. George "Chip" Campsen, R-Charleston, who supports the proposal, did not respond to requests for comment.

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Raped and Impregnated at 14, Girl Must Now Share Parental Rights with Her Attacker

BOSTON (CN) - A rape victim sued Massachusetts to stop it from subjecting her to "a court-ordered 16-year unwanted relationship with her attacker" by giving him paternity rights over the child born from the rape.
     H.T., of Norwood, Mass., sued the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in Federal Court.
     "The plaintiff, a rape victim in a state criminal matter, became pregnant in 2009 at age 14 as a result of the crime and gave birth to her attacker's child," the lawsuit states.
     "The defendant in the state criminal proceeding, age 20 at the time of the impregnation, was convicted of rape in 2011 and was sentenced to 16 years probation. Conditions of probation include an order that he initiate proceedings in family court and comply with that court's orders until the child reaches adulthood. The plaintiff here seeks to enjoin enforcement of so much of the state court's order as violates her federal rights by binding her to an unwanted 16-year legal relationship with her rapist."
     H.T., who recently graduated from high school, says the order forces her to participate in unwanted court proceedings for 16 years with the man who raped her, and to spend money on legal fees.
     "The plaintiff will suffer irreparable harm without relief from this court because she cannot choose not to participate in said family court proceedings without risking serious consequences, including the loss of custody of her child," the complaint states.
     "Even if the family court ruled in the plaintiff's favor on issues currently in dispute, such as whether the criminal defendant should be granted visitation rights to the plaintiff's child, the plaintiff will suffer harm from the constant threat of new issues arising in family court until her child reaches adulthood, including, for example, efforts by the criminal defendant to seek to modify child support orders and enforce his parental rights at the trial court level and on appeal."
     H.T. was 14 when 20-year-old Jamie Melendez raped her in the fall of 2009, making her pregnant, according to the complaint.
     H.T. says she lived with her mother, who had to quit her job to care for the baby.
     "The plaintiff and her mother repeatedly informed state officials that they wanted no contact with Melendez for any purpose and that they did not want the child born of the crime to have a relationship with Melendez," the complaint states.
     "Melendez pleaded guilty to rape in September, 2011 (Norfolk Criminal Docket No . CR200900499) and was sentenced to probation for 16 years. As a condition of probation, Melendez was ordered to initiate proceedings in family court, declare paternity as to the child born of his crime, (paternity had already been determined in the criminal case, via DNA testing), and comply with the family court's orders throughout the probationary period. The plaintiff and her mother were adamantly opposed to participation in family court proceedings and repeatedly expressed this sentiment to state officials." (Parentheses in complaint).
     In June 2012, H.T. found out that Melendez was seeking visitation rights with the child.
     After a family court judge ordered Melendez to pay $110 a week in child support, he Melendez asked for visitation rights, and offered to withdraw his request in exchange for not having to pay child support, according to the lawsuit.
     "Melendez had no prior contact with the child and had expressed no interest in the child, but no Massachusetts law forbids the enforcement of visitation rights by a biological father who causes a child's birth through the crime of rape," the complaint states.
     The sentencing judge in the state criminal court denied H.T.'s request to order Melendez to pay criminal restitution instead of child support, and release her from any legal proceedings involving him.
     H.T. asked the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to review the decision, but the single justice of the court found that she lacked standing to challenge the order. The justice agreed with the state court that H.T. could appeal any adverse rulings in family court.
     H.T. appealed the ruling, but the full court affirmed the single justice's decision in June, according to the complaint.
     H.T. says she never asserted an interest in the prosecution of Melendez. On the contrary, she seeks to be released from having any authority over his probationary conditions, according to the complaint.
     "Through this action, the plaintiff requests that she be liberated from a state court order that not only imposes unlawfully on her liberty for 16 years, but also obligates her with the unwanted and inappropriate responsibility for ensuring Melendez's compliance with the conditions of his probation; an obligation that should rest exclusively with state officials," the complaint states.
     H.T. claims the order subjects her to an unwanted legal relationship with her attacker, and violates due process and other constitutional rights.
     "An estimated 35,000 babies are born from rape every year," the complaint states. "No state court has ever issued an order such as the one at issue here. Granting the plaintiff's requested relief will inhibit state court judges in Massachusetts and elsewhere from similarly depriving rape victims of their liberty, personal autonomy and due process."
     H.T. seeks an injunction and annulment of the order.
     She is represented by Wendy Murphy, co-director of New England Law School's Women's and Children's Advocacy Project.
     A spokeswoman for Attorney General Martha Coakley declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying the state had not yet reviewed the filing.  

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