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Legal loophole in fetal homicide bill fixed, passed in House

  • Opponents to the fetal homicide bill and a bill toughening residency verification requirements to vote staged a mock funeral for reproductive and voting rights at City Plaza in Concord on Wednesday. Among the group were members of the Handmaid Coalition dressed as characters from “The Handmaid’s Tale.” ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff



Monitor staff
Thursday, June 22, 2017

After a tense debate, Republican lawmakers approved a last-minute fix to a fetal homicide bill that critics argued could unintentionally let pregnant women kill people with impunity.

“No one advocated for anyone to murder anyone, that was not the intent,” said Republican House Majority Leader Dick Hinch of Merrimack.

Lawmakers realized the unintended consequences only after the bill had passed the Republican-led House and Senate. Under the policy, fetuses can be considered victims of murder or manslaughter after reaching 20 weeks’ gestation. The language fix corrects an exemption that prevents women seeking abortions from being charged with homicide, but as written could have let them kill anyone without legal consequence, critics said.

Republicans rushed to fix the mistake through an “enrolled bills” process typically used to correct minor spelling or grammatical errors. Democrats argued the issue was so significant it should have gotten a public hearing and more thorough vetting.

“We’re expected to go along with it because we got it wrong last time,” said Rep. Renny Cushing, a Hampton Democrat. “This is just poor legislating, this is legislative malpractice.”

The fix cleared the House, 196-173, and passed the Senate, 14-9, along party lines. Republican Gov. Chris Sununu has said he will sign Senate Bill 66.

Republicans for years have been trying to establish fetal homicide laws they say give justice to women who lose a pregnancy in a car crash or during an assault. Critics warn that the measure treats fetuses like people and could erode the rights of pregnant women.

As initially approved, the bill said that “any act committed by the pregnant woman” wouldn’t apply in instances of second-degree murder, manslaughter, negligent homicide, or causing or aiding suicide. The change approved Thursday would narrow the exemption to apply only in cases where a fetus dies.

At least one attorney called the change “extremely confusing.”

“It changes the structure of the bill’s exemptions in a manner that is very difficult to understand. And these exemptions are critical: They protect pregnant women and their physicians from unjust murder and other homicide convictions,” said Devon Chaffee, executive director of the state’s American Civil Liberties Union, which opposed the bill.

While Republicans in the past have disagreed over when in fetal development the law should take effect, they came to a compromise this year on 20 weeks’ gestation.

At least 38 states currently have fetal homicide laws, and 23 of those apply to the earliest stages of pregnancy, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or amorris@cmonitor.com.)