Last fall, the extreme wing of Colorado’s anti-abortion movement believed they had the perfect vehicle for finally declaring “personhood” at the moment an egg is fertilized. Dubbed the “Brady Amendment,” activists cited the emotional story of Heather Surovik, a mother who lost her baby just weeks prior to his due date after she was hit by a car driven by a drunk driver.
“Justice” for Brady, according to bill supports, would involve revising the legal code to ensure that a person is defined at beginning at the point of conception. That way, someone can be charged for murder even if the victim has never actually been born. In a sweet bonus, the legalese would also make it possible to ban abortion, some forms of birth control and potentially infertility treatments.
As sympathetic as Brady’s story was, however, it still didn’t manage to sway the voters of Colorado. The amendment failed, just like it had every other year it was put up for a popular vote.
While Brady’s story may not have been a compelling enough narrative to win over the voters of Colorado, there’s a new case that could provide the momentum “personhood” supporters have been seeking for years.
Michelle Wilkins, at nearly eight months pregnant, went to a stranger’s home to pick up baby clothes that were listed on Craigslist, when Dynel Lane, who lived there, allegedly stabbed Wilkins, cutting open her stomach to remove the fetus. Lane, according to police reports, may have been attempting to pass off the fetus as her own child and had been faking a pregnancy in preparation, but it did not survive the attack.
Wilkins lived, and has now been released from the hospital. After a police investigation and autopsy, the Boulder County District Attorney’s office has announced that while there will be charges pressed against Lane, murder will not be one of them.
“The issue of whether or not murder charges are appropriate involving a case involving the death of a fetus or late-term pregnancy is always a difficult issue,” District Attorney Stan Garnett previously told the media. “Under Colorado law, there’s no way murder charges can be brought if it is not established that the fetus lived as a child outside the body of the mother for some period of time. I don’t know the answer yet as to whether that could be established—what our facts are here. One of the issues that we will need to evaluate in connection with that is the medical information from the autopsy.”
Critics say that because the baby was allegedly heard gasping after it had been removed from its mother’s body, that should be enough to establish it as a living person, opening Lane up to murder charges. Even if the case is flimsy, they say, it can still establish a new precedent for when a fetus can be seen as having been “murdered,” and that is always a worthwhile goal even if it fails.
“If I were the prosecutor I would be very tempted to file an extreme indifference first degree murder charge. After all, this is intentional conduct,” said Colorado 9NEWS legal analyst Scott Robinson. “We’ve never had a case in which a child was ripped untimely from the mother’s womb and then died, and this may be the case that sets the precedent.”
Abortion opponents aren’t waiting for that to happen. Instead, they have latched on to this newest tragedy, and have used it as an opening to remind people that if the “Brady Amendment” had passed, Lane would be facing a murder charge.
“An assailant, Dynel Lane, cut open a pregnant woman to get her baby. She’s just an abortionist practicing an unconventional technique,” wrote Colorado-based Personhood USA on their blog. “How horrible. Thankfully, the mother survived. But when she awakes, she, like Heather Surovik, will find out that her baby was brutally taken from her.”
Ironically, Personhood USA is partially correct. According to News9, “This case may fit the definition of ‘first-degree’ unlawful termination of a pregnancy, which requires proof of intent. It’s a class three felony punishable by 10 to 32 years in prison.” Of course, “termination of a pregnancy” implies that the intention was to end a pregnancy with a result that was not a live birth, which does not appear to be Lane’s motive, but technically any provoked ending of a pregnancy is a termination, be it an aspiration abortion at 9 weeks, an induced hospital delivery at 41 weeks, or this tragic case in Colorado.
Regardless of what ends up occurring with the case itself in the legal system, there is a very strong possibility that the incident will come up in the next round of personhood debates in Colorado—because, let’s be frank, there is always a next round in the wings.
“How many pregnant mothers will have to suffer while prosecutors are forced to look the other way?” asked Jennifer Mason, Personhood USA spokesperson in a statement after the case hit the media. “These devastating tragedies demand change in Colorado law. The parents of these unborn babies deserve justice, and as long as Colorado law claims that their children’s lives don’t matter, justice will not be served.”
With this latest crime used as another plank in the fetal personhood argument, extreme abortion opponents may be able to gain traction where they couldn’t before. While an unborn baby lost in a car accident is a heartbreaking event, it doesn’t compare to the visceral reaction one has after hearing about a nearly full term baby literally cut from the womb of the mother who was carrying it, then left gasping for breath until it died.
Still, this is an abortion debate at its core, and as such there will always be someone who will overreach, turning off those who could have been drawn over to ally with the Personhood supporters. In this case, that role of destroyer of goodwill may belong to Republican Rep. Gordon Klingenschmitt of Colorado Springs. The conservative state lawmaker released a statement condemning the act of violence against Wilkins and her unborn child, but placed the blame also on the society that allows abortion and secularism.
“This is the curse of God upon America for our sin of not protecting innocent children in the womb,” he wrote. “And part of that curse, for our rebellion against god as a nation, is that our pregnant women are ripped open.”
Considering the over-the-top rhetoric that some abortion opponents can’t help but promote, maybe passing personhood in Colorado will be just as solid a failure as it has been every time in the past. However, if they are able to contain themselves and focus specifically on cases like the fetal abduction and death of Wilkin’s unborn child, there may be a real shot for passage that wasn’t there in the years prior.
And one Personhood victory may be all it takes to start the dominoes tumbling when it comes to ending abortion and birth control rights for everyone.
Robin Marty is a freelance writer, speaker and activist. Her current project, Clinic Stories, focuses on telling the history of legal abortion one clinic at a time. Robin’s articles have appeared at Cosmopolitan.com, Politico, The Guardian, Rolling Stone, Ms. Magazine and other publications.