A bill that would make it a separate crime to kill or injure a fetus in crimes committed against a pregnant woman passed the Florida House Judiciary Committee on Monday, and now heads to a vote on the house floor.
HB 59, called the “Unborn Victims of Violence Act,” has been unsuccessfully introduced in Florida several times in a similar or identical form. But this year legislators face emotional pleas from Remee Jo Lee, the woman whose boyfriend, John Andrew Walden, was recently sentenced to nearly 14 years in prison for tricking Lee into taking an abortion pill and possibly causing her miscarriage.
Walden was sentenced under federal drug-tampering laws, but he could have faced a life sentence under the proposed law, which creates a separate crime for fetuses at any stage of development. Current Florida law only separately punishes crimes against fetuses that are able to survive outside the womb. Lee’s six-week-old embryo would have been nowhere near that stage.
“This is, I believe, a cynical attempt for proponents to claim they care about the health of pregnant women,” Amanda Allen, state legislative counsel at the Center for Reproductive Rights, told RH Reality Check. “The best way to really combat violence against pregnant women, which is a serious problem, is to increase the penalties for the crime against the woman, not punish the perp for a second crime against a ‘person.'”
The Florida bill specifically does not criminalize abortion or the actions of pregnant women, and it is not a fetal “personhood” bill like repeatedly defeated measures in Colorado that define life as beginning at conception. But, as RH Reality Check reported in January, even bills specifically designed not to punish pregnant women can be used against them by overzealous prosecutors or judges.
“It raises the specter of personhood in the law,” Allen said. The bill inserts personhood language into the criminal code by defining “unborn child” as “a member of the species homo sapiens, at any stage of development, who is carried in the womb,” and then defining crimes against an “unborn child” as separate from those perpetrated against the pregnant woman carrying it.
“Putting that definition in the criminal code is a way to elevate the fetus, in a way that’s separate and distinct from the pregnant woman,” Allen said.
A companion bill, SB 162, has cleared two senate committees and waits in a third.