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Utah, Don’t Turn Pregnant Women into Criminals

Karen McCreary,
ACLU of Utah
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March 4, 2010

Last month, the Utah legislature passed a new abortion amendment (H.B. 12) that threatens to criminalize women for their behavior during pregnancy. Gov. Gary Herbert can and should stop this dangerous legislation from becoming law.

The back story that got us to this point is tragic: A 17-year-old so desperate to end a pregnancy paid a stranger to beat her up, hoping beyond hope that the blows to her abdomen would cause a miscarriage. It didn’t. The state arrested the attacker and threw him in jail, but it had no legal basis for doing the same to the teenager. So Utah legislators decided to change the law and criminalize the acts of women who “recklessly” engage in conduct that results in the termination of a pregnancy.

It’s important to solve problems, not exacerbate them. Charging a desperate teenager with a crime solves nothing. Clearly, this teenager, like other women facing unintended pregnancies, needs our support. Everyone’s circumstances are different. We should be making laws and policies that ensure that every woman, no matter what her situation, can get the health care she needs. We should not be putting up obstacles to care or threatening to prosecute women who need our compassion. The medical community is clear: prosecuting pregnant women for their behavior can dangerously drive a woman who is most in need of help away from seeking services. We all suffer when that happens. We also need to provide our youth with medically appropriate information about sex and its consequences in our public schools, to ensure that our young people are equipped with the information they need to avoid facing this situation in the first place.

Moreover, we should all be concerned that in the hands of an overzealous prosecutor, this overbroad amendment could be used to punish pregnant women more generally. For example, could a pregnant woman who fails to wear a seatbelt and is in a car accident be charged with reckless homicide should she miscarry? We know from experience that prosecutors can and do bring cases against individuals that go far beyond what the legislature intended. In 2004, for example, a woman was arrested and prosecuted under Utah’s existing criminal homicide statute for refusing, against her physician’s recommendation, to undergo a cesarean section. Pregnant women do not lose their right to make personal, private medical decisions, even when they disagree with their doctors. H.B. 12 threatens to undermine this basic right.

Gov. Herbert is now faced with a decision. We hope that he will realize that making criminals out of women in unthinkably hard circumstances is not the answer. Gov. Herbert should veto this legislation, and the legislature should turn its attention to supporting, not criminalizing those who most need our compassion and assistance. The eyes of the nation are on Utah; it is time to do the right thing.

(Cross-posted to Daily Kos and Feministing.)

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