The Governor of Utah, Gary Herbert has signed into law a bill that would charge a woman with criminal homicide if she knowingly carries out a self-abortion. In order analyze the impact this law will have on Latinas, particularly immigrant and low-income Latinas, let’s take a step back and review how this law, with its deep contempt for women on all levels, got passed in the first place.
Whereas many states have laws already in existence regarding fetal homicide, legislators in the state of Utah put forth a bill criminalizing “any act resulting from a woman who knowingly, recklessly, or intentionally causes a miscarriage”, in which the pregnant woman herself may spend 15 to life in prison. That bill was returned to legislators because although Gov. Herbert agreed with the goal of the bill, he “also believes very strongly that the state should not enact a law with unintended consequences.” Indeed, Marina Lowe, the of the Utah American Civil Liberties Union had advised Mr. Herbert to veto this bill due to the consequences that could arise. She said, “So many things can happen, and it’s all in the eye of the beholder – that’s what’s very dangerous about this legislation.” In other words, Herbert was concerned that if a woman had a miscarriage due to say, a fall on a patch of ice, there was the possibility that she would be criminally charged. The solution? The word “recklessly” was removed from the bill and on March 8 Gov. Herbert signed into a law a bill that allows homicide charges to be brought against women themselves for ending their own pregnancy.
We still need to bring light the dangers that this law, whose authors had creatively invented something called “criminal miscarriage,” still poses for many women. The bill proposed was a response to what happened about a year ago, where a 17 year old that did not want to carry her pregnancy to term paid a man $150 to beat her up, anticipating that the outcome would be a miscarriage. While I agree that these circumstances should not happen to any woman who does not want to carry her pregnancy to full term, this law makes no headway in preventing it. Even with a cursory understanding of this law, it is clear that it in no way addresses the reality of the situation- that women are not able get affordable, timely abortion services, particularly adolescents.
Others, such as National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW), have forcefully made the argument that this law creates the horrible possibility of sending women to jail for circumstances that were not intended to cause an abortion: what if a woman receives treatment for cancer while pregnant? If the fetus were to die under treatment, a woman might spend the rest of her life in prison. NAPW underscores that given that miscarriages happen all the time and even health professionals are not 100% sure about what causes a miscarriage:
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.
However, the deep injustice that a woman who goes through a miscarriage will be questioned about her intentions is only the surface of how this law will negatively impact women. This law makes Utah the first state to be able to charge women with murder for having an unexplained miscarriage or obtaining an abortion on her own (as opposed to a lesser crime, such as “procuring an illegal abortion”). For many years right-wing activists have aimed to “protect” fetuses from the women that carry them and this law achieves their goal of being able to control women and their reproduction with the most violent tools the state has available to it. By framing all women as potential dangers to the fetuses they carry, this law achieves its real purpose, which is to criminalize the very status of women in order to control our reproduction and strengthen the formal enforcement of women as second class citizens and humans.
There is no doubt that this law will be “tested out” on immigrant women and low-income women first and foremost. As women who are less likely to have health insurance, a regular health care provider and more likely to work in dangerous conditions, and have later prenatal care initiation, this law sanctions prosecutors to bring criminal charges against those women who have health outcomes that are worse than their wealthier, white, non-immigrant counterparts. Put another way: this law takes advantage of social inequity to further subjugate the oppressed- and it does so in order to deflect attention from state’s obligation to increase access to health services and healthy environments for women and their families. Therefore, this Utah law to prosecute women for self-induced abortion aims to target low-income and immigrant women as criminals regardless of their “true intentions” with their pregnancy. This law is a danger both to women who intend to keep their pregnancies and who intend terminate their pregnancies, when in fact we should be passing laws that ensure that they are able to safely and autonomously decide to do either.
I highly recommend you listen to this radio interview with Lynn Paltrow from National Advocates for Pregnant Women explaining the law and articulating clearly the dehumanization of women that is implemented through this law.
By Liza Fuentes, Senior Research Associate and Sheila Reynoso, Research Intern