Written by Amie Newman for RHRealityCheck.org – News, commentary and community for reproductive health and justice.
When anti-choice advocates dream up and manage to pass bills in the name of being “pro-life,” make no mistake – there is no question they know that these laws have the potential to ruin lives.
In the case of Christine Taylor, an Iowa mother of two girls and pregnant with her third child, a feticide law enacted in that state because of anti-choice efforts has wreaked havoc on her life.
It all started last month, according to Change.org:
Last month, after an upsetting phone conversation with her estranged husband, Ms. Taylor became light-headed and fell down a flight of stairs in her home. Paramedics rushed to the scene and ultimately declared her healthy. However, since she was pregnant with her third child at the time, Taylor thought it would be best to be seen at the local ER to make sure her fetus was unharmed.
After Taylor was treated by a nurse at the private hospital and deemed fine, she confided to the nurse that she was upset and scared and wasn’t sure she wanted to continue the pregnancy. Her husband recently left her after she told him she was pregnant with their third child:
“I never said I didn’t want my baby, but I admitted that I had been considering adoption or abortion,” she said. “I admit that I said I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue the pregnancy. My husband sends me money, but money doesn’t make a parent. I don’t have anybody else to turn to.”
Although Taylor was in the first part of her second trimester, the nurse noted on her chart that she was in the first week of her third trimester – the time when, under Iowa’s fetal homicide law, a violent act perpetrated against a pregnant woman could be considered criminal. The nurse called over the doctor who then called the police – which is when Christine Taylor found herself arrested and sent to jail for admitting uncertainty about her pregnancy and fear about raising three children on her own.
Iowa is one of 37 states with a feticide law on the books, a number that has increased in recent years “because of a growing movement by some conservatives to target providers of late abortion, such as Dr. George Tiller, and to protect “unborn victims of violence,”” a back-door effort to create a status of “personhood” for the fetus separate from its mother before it is viable.
One section of Iowa’s law criminalizes any act by any person who attempts to intentionally
terminate a pregnancy “without the knowledge and voluntary consent of the pregnant person” at any stage of pregnancy.
Another makes it a felony to intentionally terminate a pregnancy “with the knowledge and voluntary consent of the pregnant person after the end of the second trimester,” unless a pregnancy is terminated for the reasons of the life or health of the mother. In short…a willing effort to terminate a pregnancy. This is the section of the law under which Christine Taylor was charged.
According to the Des Moines Register, “Bringing a charge of attempted feticide against Taylor would have treaded new legal territory in Iowa, legal experts said.”
“I’ve never seen those facts brought to me in 20 years of prosecuting,” said Corwin Ritchie, coordinator of the Iowa County Attorneys Association.
Robert Rigg, who teaches at the Drake University Law School, said the unusual case raises important questions even though Taylor is not being prosecuted. Among them: “How in the heck did the police get a statement made by a patient to a medical person during the course of treatment?” he asked.
Under federal law, health care providers can release limited information to law enforcement, but not if it was given in the course of that person’s “treatment related to the propensity to commit this type of violent act.” Disclosure of some information could be a violation of federal rules protecting personal medical information, Rigg said.
Though some fetal homicide laws are relics from centuries ago (Washington state’s 1895 law defines fetal homicide as intentionally causing the death of a “quick child,” which is an ancient term for when a pregnant woman can feel the fetus inside her), most derive from our federal “Unborn Victims of Violence Act” (UVVA), which allows for the perpetrator of a violent crime against a pregnant women to be charged for two crimes – one against the woman and one against her fetus. And while a violent crime perpetrated against a pregnant woman resulting in both her death and the death of her unborn baby during a wanted pregnancy is a heinous crime, the passage of the UVVA law and the resulting state fetal homicide laws are more about blocking access to abortion and keeping women scared and “in line.” Re-published on Alternet.org, Jeanne Flavin writes in her book Our Bodies, Our Crimes: The Policing of Women’s Reproduction in America:
The Unborn Victims of Violence Act explicitly states that nothing in the act “shall be construed to permit the prosecution … of any woman with respect to her unborn child.” But state statutes have used nearly identical language (often, as noted, only after hard-fought battles to get the language included in the first place) and then have gone on to prosecute pregnant women for their drug use in what has been called a “legislative bait and switch.” Fetal protection laws not only represent a backdoor to abolishing abortion but also they leave open the possibility that the laws used to prosecute those who assault pregnant women may be directed against pregnant women themselves. In Missouri, for example, the state argued that the exception articulated in their fetus-centered homicide statute applied only to a woman who indirectly harmed her unborn child, not to a woman whose drug use was claimed to have directly endangered the child.
So while these laws were enacted because of intense advocacy by anti-choice forces under the guise of “protecting pregnant women and their unborn babies,” they do have the power to be – and have been – wielded like weapons against pregnant women like Christine Taylor.
Quoted in the Des Moines Register, Lynn Paltrow executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW) said of the incident:
“You want women to be able to talk to their doctors without being accused as a baby killer”…Transforming some mothers’ obviously difficult and painful circumstances into a crime, she said, “would make every pregnant woman in this country vulnerable to criminal prosecution.”
The charges against Taylor were dropped ultimately but not because this is a draconian, hateful, anti-woman, anti-family piece of legislation that harms women and families. They were dropped because Taylor’s doctor confirmed that she was in her second trimester at the time of her fall, not the “criminal” third trimester.
And, as Change.org notes, there is another shocking element to this case – the question of patient confidentiality. The doctor and nurse involved in reporting this to the police seem to be in serious breach of the law:
Christine Taylor came to them emotionally vulnerable in order to seek help for her unborn child. She thought she was in a safe place talking to professionals in whom she could confide. Oops, her bad. As Robert Rigg, professor at the Drake University Law School, said, “How in the heck did the police get a statement made by a patient to a medical person during the course of treatment?”
This is not about “protecting the life of the unborn.” Protecting the life of the unborn for women who want to be pregnant means ensuring access to high quality prenatal care. It means ensuring pay equity– that women are paid on par with their male counterparts – so they are able to support a family. It means ensuring paid family leave and fair breastfeeding policies. It means making sure that pregnant women are safe from perpetrators of violence – most often their boyfriends or husbands.
This is about innocent lives being trampled upon though. This is about the lives of the women and children who are here now: living, breathing, laughing, struggling, nurturing, being. It’s about making sure families like Christine Taylor and her two children have the means to live safely, free to make the best decisions they can about their health and lives, without fear of prosecution or retribution from anti-choice advocates aiming to criminalize pregnant women’s choices.
What kind of messages are we sending to pregnant women? Either ask for or seek help and risk being persecuted, maybe even jailed, for reaching out or remain fearful and do not seek out medical attention or services. These aren’t choices at all. These are dangerous scenarios that risk both mothers’ and babies’ health and lives.
Christine Taylor is not “collateral damage” in the war against women, perpetrated by anti-choice advocates. She is an exact target.