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Thursday, December 23,2010

When a fetus is the victim

By Pamela White

It’s hard for anyone who hasn’t lost a child to imagine Laurie Gorham’s grief. Only six weeks away from giving birth to a baby boy, she was struck by a driver in a dark SUV who ran a stop sign, left tire tracks on her body and drove away. She barely survived. Her son did not. As a mother, I was sickened to learn the baby had died. I remember being pregnant, remember how very much I wanted each of my baby boys. I don’t know how women deal with the grief of miscarriage or stillbirth, but to lose a viable baby as the result of a criminal act … It’s a shame that our society has splintered into politically useless and intellectually dishonest factions. Rather than improving our country, we waste our time bickering, fighting over the scraps of our democracy, while so many important issues go unaddressed. The left is every bit as guilty as the right, the right as guilty as the left. And those who say and do nothing are the guiltiest of all. But that’s a topic for another column.

Back to Laurie Gorman.

Right now, Republican lawmakers are throwing together legislation similar to that in effect in 35 other states that recognizes the fetus as a legal victim if it is harmed or killed during the com- mission of a crime. It’s a statute Colorado lacks, but getting such a bill passed is going to require a kind of cooperation and nuanced thinking that hardly seems possible these days in the political arena.

While religious conservatives will overreach by pushing for a “personhood” bill that targets abortion rights, liberal lawmakers will be told by lobbyists that any attempt to protect the unborn puts Colorado on the proverbial “slippery slope” to the reproductive enslavement of women. The bill will get caught between the demands of extremists on both sides, leaving parents with no recourse when someone deprives them of a wanted, awaited child.

It doesn’t have to be that way. If religious conservatives could think pragmatically and stop breathing fire and brimstone for a moment, they might realize that they have a choice: fighting for something they will never achieve or passing a law that will actually help the future Laurie Gormans of our state find justice.

Voters have repeatedly shown that they overwhelmingly oppose efforts to outlaw abortion and give fetuses full legal rights. Any attempt to push for a bill that goes to such an extreme is a waste of ink, paper and a lot of time for the poor folks in Legislative Legal Services. In this case, religious conservatives will do more good if they compromise, something that is hard for any religious zealot to do.

I suspect that many Democrats are sympathetic to Laurie Gorham and the need for such a law. I’m willing to bet that many would be in favor of passing a law similar to Laci and Connor’s Law, the federal statute that defines a fetus as a legal victim if it is harmed during the commission of a host of different federal crimes. It would be an easy task to adapt the language of that law, which specifically exempts abortion, for the state of Colorado.

But any Democrat who appears to be on board with such a bill will find people like the National Abortion Rights Action League’s Toni Panetta darkening their doorway, telling them that the bill creates a “slippery slope” that endangers abortion rights. Never mind that the federal statute already applies to Colorado, as it does all 50 states, and that women’s right to have an abortion remains intact here. For some pro-choice advocates, everything represents a slippery slope.

Panetta spent no small amount of time last spring lobbying for changes in the language of SB 193, which was signed into law and which regulates the shackling of pregnant inmates, specifically banning the use of shackles on inmates in labor. Panetta didn’t want references to trimesters in the bill — such as a ban on the use of belly belts on women in the second and third trimesters of pregnancy — because that apparently created a “slippery slope.” The reason for including trimester language was medically sound; women in more advanced stages of pregnancy face a greater risk from belly shackles. But Panetta wanted none of it.

Her arguments were absurd, extreme and showed no respect for the facts of pregnancy. She made it clear that NARAL didn’t know whether it would support the bill, which was focused on lessening the pain and humiliation suffered by pregnant inmates. In her mind, the potential threat to abortion rights — surely a figment of her lobbyist imagination — seemed to be a higher priority than the suffering endured by pregnant inmates and the potential harm that shackling might inflict on their unborn babies.

Are there enough lobby-resistant moderates in the Colorado General Assembly to pass a law that acknowledges the love a pregnant mother feels for the life inside her without careening into Roe v. Wade?

Don’t hold your breath.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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Actually, pro-life groups will support the bill to provide justice for women and their unborn children who are victims like this. But you are correct that pro-abortion groups will oppose it, even though it hasn't gotten in the way of abortions in other states that protect women and children this way.