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Maine Legislative Committee Narrowly Approves Fetal Rights bill
05/18/2011   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

A coalition of women's advocacy and civil rights groups is vowing to block a bill that would give legal standing to human fetuses. The bill's sponsor says it would make Maine law conform to federal statutes that recognize a fetus as an unborn child in cases where a pregnant women loses her baby as the result of an act of violence. But opponents say Plowman's bill is really an attempt to weaken existing abortion laws.

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Republican state Sen. Debra Plowman's effort to bring Maine into line with 36 states and with federal law governing the status of a human fetus has galvanized several women's advocacy groups, doctors and lawyers into action.

At issue is whether an unborn child should be considered a human being when a pregnancy is terminated as the result of murder, manslaughter and assault. The Hampden Republican says her bill would require the courts to recognize that when a pregnant woman and her unborn child are killed in an act of violence, two lives are lost, not one. And that's already happening on federal property here in Maine.

"If you murdered a woman who is pregnant at the federal building this law would apply, it is federal law," Plowman said. "So your unborn child is a victim at the federal building, but not at Dunkin Doughnuts."

But Plowman's bill is facing plenty of opposition from those who argue that state law was recently changed to address the elevated seriousness of a violent crime against a pregnant woman. Opponents of Plowman's bill say it is really one of several attempts in the Republican-led Legislature to erode constitutionally protected abortion rights.

"This bill was model legislation drafted by National Right to Life," said Shenna Bellows of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, who is among critics of LD 1463.

Bellows was hoping for a vote of opposition from members of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. And she almost got it. A deeply divided panel has returned a 7-6 ought-to-pass recommendation for the bill after a lengthy work session.

Rep. Susan Morissette, a Winslow Republican, recalled the months leading up to the own delivery of her twins as she considered arguments over the status of her then-unborn children.

"What if I was murdered and one of my twins were murdered?" Morrisette asked. "Who would tell my now surviving 10-year-old twin that that other part of that entity, that pregnancy, was an aggravated factor when she lived and he died--it wasn't anything except for an aggravated factor in the legal system."

Although the panel's Senate Republican Chair Garrett Mason, of Lisbon Falls, voted in favor of Plowman's bill, Rep. Gary Plummer, a Windham Republican who serves as House chair, voted against it--despite assurances from the bill's sponsor that LD 1463 would not restrict a woman's right to obtain an abortion.

Plummer was disturbed by the language and definitions in the bill, which essentially subject those held responsible for the injury or death of a fetus to the same punishment established for any other murder or assault.

"And maybe I'm reading too much into it, but I think the definition says that from the time of conception, that's an unborn child, it's a person, it's a human being, and for me if we assign that definition--and maybe I'm reading more into it than is there--but if we assign that definition then it's a very short step to prosecuting the mother," Plummer said.

Kate Brogan of the Family Planning Association of Maine says Plowman's bill attempts to address issues already recognized under Maine law in order to create a new cause of action for the unborn.

"This bill seeks to establish legal rights for the fetus that are separate and distinct from the woman who carries it," Brogan said. "We believe that a pregnant woman and her fetus should never be considered as separate, independent--and even adversarial--entities."

But Plowman says her critics are miscontruing the intent of her bill, which she says simply recognizes the humanity of a woman's pregnancy and the right of an unborn child to be recognized as a human being should they become a victim of violence.

"This is not contrary to Roe vs. Wade," Plowman said. "That there is no personhood established, that there is no infringement upon a woman's rights. and it has been found in case after case after case."

Plowman says she does not expect the bill to become a partisan issue when it hits the floor for debate.


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