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Utah: Charges of Fetal Homocide

 article about Utah: Charges of Fetal Homocide
2004-03-23 20:03:36

Rowland first suspected a problem with her babies' health in December, when she hadn't felt the babies move. She then sought medical help.

The doctors determined that the babies' condition was deteriorating. They warned her that the babies needed to be born immediately to ensure their survival. Rowland refused.

Over the course of several weeks Rowland made more visits to Salt Lake City area hospitals. Each time medical staff urged her to allow a C-section. But Rowland persisted in her refusal. According to various accounts, Rowland did not want to be "cut like that," because it would "ruin her life."

The twins finally arrived on January 13, one live, one stillborn. Now Rowland has been charged with criminal homocide for her "depraved indifference to human life."

But given our laws governing abortion, some argue that this action is unfair.

In the landmark 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision, the Supreme Court ruled that abortion cannot be restricted for any reason in the first 6 months of pregnancy. In the last 3 months abortion cannot be restricted if it affects the life or health of the mother.

Twelve weeks after conception.

Amazingly, the Court defined health to include the general well-being of the mother. This definition, which includes psychological health, is so broad that a 1982 Senate Judiciary committee concluded:

No significant legal barriers of any kind whatsoever exist in the United States for a woman to obtain an abortion for any reason during any stage of her pregnancy.

Here's where it gets confusing. Rowland could have side-stepped her legal problems had she only found a psychologist willing to declare her pregnancy a risk to her psychological health. Sound farfetched? Maybe. But Rowland's attorney revealed that her client has a history of mental health problems.

There is a more troubling aspect to this case. Consider a very different route Rowland could have taken. Suppose at almost 6 months, or about 24 weeks, of her babies' development, Rowland had decided that the babies weren't the gender she wanted.

Twenty weeks after conception.

Twenty-four weeks is significant for two reasons. First, at 24 weeks of development a baby has about an 80% chance of survival (source: If You are Pregnant: Information on Fetal Development, Abortion and Alternatives, Minnesota Department of Health Web Site). Second, 24 weeks is just at the end of the time when abortions cannot be restricted.

Rowland could have aborted her babies for no better reason than gender-discrimination. And nothing could have prevented her from doing so.

Is gender-discrimination more legitimate than a desire to avoid the scars of surgery?

In case you think my comparison of abortion to Rowland's actions are much ado about nothing, consider the views of Marguerite Driessen, law professor at Brigham Young University.

Driessen believes this case could have a chilling affect on abortion rights. She says, "It's very troubling to have somebody come in and say we're going to charge this mother for murder because we don't like the choices she made."

What an absurd situation we find ourselves in. If a mother does not want her baby, and the medical community affirms her choice, taking the baby's life is OK. But if the mother takes it upon herself to take the life of her baby, it's a criminal act.

Let me be perfectly clear. In no way am I attempting to justify Rowland's actions. On the contrary, I am trying to show the contradictory ways our legal system treats the preborn. We can't seem to decide how many rights the unborn really have. And so we tie ourselves in philosophic knots. On one level we grant absolute rights to the mother. But on a deeper, more intuitive level, we seem to know that a mother's rights do not always trump those of her baby's.

I believe we have come to this point in our double-minded treatment of the unborn, because we are unwilling to acknowledge one thing -- that the unborn have rights just like the rest of us. The freedom to enjoy "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" belongs to all of us, not just those of us lucky enough to be born.

The Cheers, (c) Rob Favero (, All rights reserved.

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