States at the focal point in debate on harm to fetus as separate crime

Several have acted to amend criminal codes in addressing the issue

March 27, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

SALT LAKE CITY - Many people see a philosophical or moral element in the debate about whether harming a fetus, through a violent act against its mother, should be a separate crime.

In Washington, where the Senate sent a bill to President Bush on Thursday that would designate just such a new federal crime, the discussion often drifted toward the symbolic.

In Utah and other states, though, where this debate has raged for months, if not years, people are moving on to the next phase: the nuts and bolts of what these laws mean.

In recent weeks, governors in Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia were presented with legislation amending the criminal codes to include the harming of a fetus - though only Kentucky's has become law. Texas extended its laws to cover the killing of a fetus beginning at the moment of conception last fall. About 30 states, through judicial precedent or legislation, have extended or expanded the legal standing of a fetus, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The motivation in these efforts is complex, but the climate for change this year seems more receptive. Some supporters of fetal rights say that their opposition to abortion is bound up with a belief that killing a fetus is a crime - though all these bills exempt medical abortion from prosecution. Others say these measures are about law and order - that the killing of Laci Peterson and her unborn son in California in 2002 exposed a gap in the criminal justice system in some states.

Many advocates of abortion rights say they see no difference. The Peterson case, they say, is being used as a lever by anti-abortion groups that seek to undermine the legal structure supporting abortion - by giving fetuses legal standing - and so build a case to challenge Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.

Both sides agree, however, that the emotional and intellectual timbre of the fetal rights debate has changed and that the place to look for its ramifications is in Utah.

Melissa Ann Rowland, 28, sits in the Salt Lake County Jail, charged with killing one of her twins, who died as a result of her "depraved indifference" as an expectant mother, prosecutors say. In January, they say, Rowland refused to have a Caesarean section despite her doctor's urging, until it was too late. One child, a girl, lived. The boy did not.

Prosecutors say that a murder charge resulted from a pattern of behavior by Rowland, including drug use and suspected abuse of her other children, and that her reluctance to allow the surgery was the capstone that proved her indifference.

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