Texas Makes Landmark Use of Fetal Protection Law

This week, Texas made landmark use of a fetal protection law. A 19-year-old man was sentenced to life in prison for helping his pregnant girlfriend miscarry their twins. The 17-year-old girl was not charged. Many question the statute's application in the case, which they say differs from lawmakers' original intent.

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Soon after the Laci Peterson case made headlines, Texas enacted its own fetal protection law. That was two years ago. This week a 19-year-old Texas man was sentenced to life in prison for helping his 17-year-old girlfriend miscarry four-month-old twin fetuses. Under both state and federal law, a woman cannot be prosecuted for aborting her own fetuses. NPR's Kathy Lohr reports on this Texas case and the problems it revealed in the Texas law.

KATHY LOHR reporting:

Texas Right to Life worked for many years on getting the Prenatal Protection Act passed. Legislative director Stacey Emick says the intent was to add penalties for domestic violence against women and other crimes that district attorneys couldn't prosecute.

Ms. STACEY EMICK (Texas Right to Life): ...that that perpetrator would pay for the crimes both against her and her unborn child and understanding that this is a woman, in most cases, that has chosen to have the child and is expecting a child. And before this law went into effect, that woman was not compensated at all, or her grief or her injury was not addressed for the death of that unborn child.

LOHR: The Texas law was passed before the federal law named for Laci Peterson, the high-profile California woman who was murdered when she was eight months pregnant. That case spurred a number of other states to take up so-called Laci laws. In the Lufkin, Texas, case, a 19-year-old man was convicted of two counts of capital murder this week after he stomped on his 17-year-old girlfriend's stomach to cause a miscarriage. She was four months pregnant with twins. Stacey Emick, with Texas Right to Life, says the girl's boyfriend, Geraldo Flores, was prosecuted as intended.

Ms. EMICK: He was the perpetrator. He admitted the crime, so he was charged with the appropriate crime as the law states and as the Legislature intended for it to work.

LOHR: But others question the use of the new law. Peggy Romberg is with the Women's Health and Family Planning Association of Texas, a pro-choice group. She says the 17-year-old girl may be as guilty as her boyfriend.

Mr. PEGGY ROMBERG (Women's Health and Family Planning Association of Texas): And she herself tried to do things that would cause a miscarriage, and she miscarried only after she talked him into helping her. I mean, they worked together, and yet--I mean, I feel in some ways, you know, kind of concerned because the legislation was written where it protected physicians providing legal services and the pregnant woman herself, yet, you know, in reality when you look at this particularly tragic set of circumstances, both these teen-agers did the same thing. Yet he's now sentenced to life in prison, and she essentially is free to move on with her life.

LOHR: Romberg says there are other problems with the Texas law. It's being used in the Northern Panhandle, where women who were seeking prenatal care are now being prosecuted for drug abuse. Pro-choice activists fear giving more rights to fetuses will undermine reproductive rights in the long run.

While the Texas case represents an unusual application of the statute, law professor at George Washington University Jeff Rosen says the fetal protection laws that exist in more than 20 states are here to stay.

Professor JEFF ROSEN (George Washington University): These laws are still logical, even though this troubling and disturbing case arose. Laws can't anticipate every possible application, and generally the impulse to punish people who harm fetuses while also protecting the right to choose is a sensible legal choice that has deep roots in state and now federal law.

LOHR: But reformers of these laws dare not try to punish women who harm their own fetuses. That would take head-on the right to abortion, something states said their laws were not meant to challenge.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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