A pregnant woman walks into an emergency room experiencing a miscarriage, or she gives birth to a stillborn. Someone becomes suspicious and notifies police. They want to know: Is the woman at fault? Everything she’s done during her pregnancy comes under scrutiny. Did she take any drugs or medication? Did she research abortions on the internet?
A “pro-life” prosecutor decides to make her a pariah. She might face criminal charges, child endangerment or, worst-case scenario, manslaughter or murder if prosecutors believe she intended to end her pregnancy.
This is a dystopian scenario — what could happen if anti-abortion zealots take their positions to an extreme. And it’s not out of the realm of possibility.
Abortion rights groups fear the next frontier in the fight to take away reproductive rights is to grant fetuses “personhood” status. Anti-abortion groups such as Americans United for Life are pushing for a federal executive order that would recognize “preborn persons as constitutional ‘persons’” entitled to equal protection under the U.S. Constitution. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida recently introduced the ”Unborn Child Support Act, ” which would grant child support payments to women “at any stage of development” of a pregnancy. The legislation appears to be a way to make fetal personhood more palatable to Americans.
In Florida, the “Human Life Protection Amendment” is trying to put fetal personhood on the 2024 ballot. The proposed amendment to the state constitution would create a “God-given right to life of the preborn individual.” The citizen initiative recently cleared its first hurdle but still needs almost 900,000 petition signatures to make it on the ballot. Voters would have to give it 60% approval for final passage. It’s a long shot this will ever happen.
Fortunately, polls have shown broad support for abortion rights in Florida, and voters in other states have rejected similar ballot initiatives. But this is an example of the extremes to which the anti-abortion movement can go without Roe v. Wade — struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in June — and it’s the type of next step that could pick up steam in conservative state legislatures, as it has in Georgia and Arizona.
Mark Minck, chairman of Protect Human Life Florida, the group sponsoring the proposed constitutional amendment, told the Herald Editorial Board he wants to fix what he believes is an inconsistency in state law. Florida law says the killing of “an unborn child” by injuring the mother “shall be deemed murder in the same degree” as if the mother had been killed. Yet women who voluntarily end a pregnancy are exempt.
If approved by voters, the proposal would effectively ban abortions at any stage of a pregnancy, according to Caroline Mala Corbin, a University of Miami School of Law professor who specializes in reproductive rights.
While the proposed amendment makes an exception “to save the life of the mother,” it also requires “reasonable steps to save the life of the preborn individual.” Whatever “reasonable” means could create a chilling effect among doctors fearful of their medical judgment being second-guessed, putting women’s lives at risk.
The proposal also makes an exception for “spontaneous miscarriage, or spontaneous fetal demise.” This is considered the most common type of pregnancy loss, often occurring because the fetus isn’t developing normally. But, Corbin explained, when a fetus is considered a person, that opens the door for any miscarriage to be investigated as a possible abortion or as neglect by the mother.
Could a woman be charged with child endangerment if she took, for example, aspirin, some types of antidepressant or any medication that doctors advise against during pregnancy? It’s uncharted territory.