By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
RALEIGH — Despite intense efforts of a handful of lawmakers to derail Ethen’s Law, the Unborn Victims of Violence Act passed the N.C. House with a more than 2-to-1 margin on Thursday.
“This bill has had strong support for years, but just now made it to the House floor,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League. “Hearing some of the rather ludicrous arguments against it makes it even more clear what a common sense piece of legislation this is. We hope it zooms through the Senate.”
Closely mirroring the national law that already protects the unborn on federal lands like the Blue Ridge Parkway and military bases, House Bill 215 recognizes that crimes against pregnant women involve two victims. According to the bill, it would not matter whether a perpetrator knew his victim was pregnant. If he intended harm to the woman, that intent would transfer to the baby, just as in current law if a shooter aims to kill one person but misses and hits another, he can still be charged with murder.
Despite its straightforward approach, the bill’s opponents claimed it would turn involuntary manslaughter into murder and allow a woman who miscarries to point the finger at anyone she chooses and have him or her arrested for her child’s death.
Reading statistics about spontaneous abortion and offering up one dubious scenario after the next (a woman has a miscarriage, goes to the police and blames it on her boyfriend; a doctor prescribes a medication that is given to a pregnant woman by mistake and her baby dies), Rep. Phillip Haire (D-Haywood) pushed to amend the bill so that manslaughter would apply to victims at 12 to 20 weeks old; and other charges only after the 20-week mark.
“Between 12 and 20 weeks a child could not live outside the womb,” Haire said, insisting that the law should not apply at all in the early stages of pregnancy.
“If someone runs a stop sign, not knowing that the woman in the other car is pregnant and the embryo is killed, suddenly that person is guilty of … manslaughter and winds up in the penitentiary,” he said, repeating many of the same arguments that he had used unsuccessfully in the Judiciary B Subcommittee on Wednesday.
But Rep. Paul Stam (R-Wake), who expressed regret that he would not have enough time to point out all the fallacies of Haire’s arguments, explained that the bill would not change the fact that the burden of proof to show that a crime has occurred remains on the state. He read out the many terms in the bill from “willfully and maliciously” to “recklessly and wantonly” to show that it does take into consideration the intent of the perpetrator and later explained that the “mens rea” of a crime may or may not include the knowledge of a specific fact. For example, he said, someone charged with first-degree sex offense cannot avoid prosecution simply by saying that he didn’t realize the victim was 11 instead of 18. Similarly, those who injure the unborn should not be able to sidestep the law simply by denying knowledge of the pregnancy.
Though Rep. Deborah Ross (D-Wake) argued passionately for Haire’s amendment and floated one of her own that would have made it an element of the criminal offense that the perpetrator knew or should have known the victim was pregnant, both proposals failed.
Joining the effort to stop the bill, Rep. Henry Michaux (D-Durham) continued to insist that if an unborn baby was killed in a car accident the proposed law would require that a driver be charged with murder. But Rep. Bert Jones (Una-Rockingham) made it clear that few lawmakers were buying into his argument.
“I’m not a lawyer, but I do know the difference between murder and involuntary manslaughter,” he said, reminding House members that any one of them could “unwittingly cause an accident that could result in involuntary manslaughter.”
“It sounds like a lot of our members maybe don’t think that involuntary manslaughter should be a crime, and that’s a separate issue,” Jones said. He also challenged Ross’ logic regarding her position that the law should not be applied unless it could be proven that a perpetrator knew his victim was pregnant.
“If this makes someone think twice about beating up a woman because she might be pregnant and they don’t know it, I think that would be a good thing,” he said.
Rep. Edgar Starnes (R-Caldwell), a sponsor of the bill, cut to the chase, telling fellow legislators that Ross’ amendment would only damage the law and give perpetrators a loophole.
“If it is a crime to kill an unborn deer in North Carolina, it should be a crime to kill an unborn child,” he had earlier told the body, describing a drunk driving case in his district some 25 years ago in which a woman was hit head-on and lost her full-term baby as a result. When the district attorney tried to charge the drunken driver with the death, the judge dismissed the case because North Carolina law does not recognize unborn children as worthy of protection. Starnes said that same year a hunter charged with killing a doe out of season had his charges tripled when it was determined the animal was carrying twin fawns.
Rep. Dan Ingle (R-Alamance) asked opponents of Ethen’s Law to think about a woman’s choice and what happens when she is pregnant and becomes the victim of violence.
“The word ‘choice’ hasn’t been used in here but it needs to be used when we look at this bill. The choice is being taken away from the mother when the life of that fetus ends because of some criminal offense,” Ingle said. “This bill addresses this and addresses it well. We need to protect the choices that that mother has made to keep that fetus, to raise that fetus…”
But Rep. Alma Adams (D-Guilford) said the measure would “create legal personhood for the first time in North Carolina from the moment of implantation,” not something she wanted to do. And Ross called the bill a “wish list” for “people who want to start life at conception.”
Rep. Dale Folwell (R-Forsyth), another of the bill’s sponsors, challenged her attempt to make the bill into a political issue with her “wish list” characterization and reminded her that he had already said he wished the bill was not needed.
“I guess she didn’t hear my opening remarks. I wish I weren’t here discussing this. I wish I’d never met this family. I wish there wasn’t a need for this bill. I wish I’d not traveled across the state meeting these grandparents … I wish I had not talked to all the investigators who have investigated these crimes or met with coroners who have done medical reports …,” Folwell said, adding that he didn’t know if the folks in the gallery, which included families of unborn victims, were “right or left.”
“But I know this bill is the difference between right and wrong,” he concluded.
At the end of the sometimes heated debate, the House voted 77-35 for the bill on second reading after which an objection was raised, which would have put third reading off until next week. After a brief recess during which the House calendar was reorganized to accommodate further discussion of the bill on Monday, that objection was withdrawn and another entered by Rep. Joe Hackney (D-Orange), who came back after a second recess and withdrew his objection.
With the bill back on the floor, members quickly voted down an amendment by Rep. Elmer Floyd (D-Cumberland) that would have changed the penalty of murder of an unborn child from life without parole to life. Then on third reading the bill passed 74 to 35 with a dozen Democrats joining Republicans in the effort.
The bill, named after Ethen Nielsen, the son of murder victim Jenna Nielsen, whose parents were in the House gallery on Thursday, will now go to the Senate for consideration.