Domestic violence assault — particularly against a woman who is pregnant — is a horrendous crime. It should be prevented and, when it happens, perpetrators must be held accountable.
But this crime must not be politicized.
Throughout my adult life, I have been working to end domestic violence. Currently, I serve as a legal specialist working to support victims through the judicial intervention and protection from abuse order process. I have also worked in law enforcement, and as a prosecutor on domestic violence crimes.
It is from these three perspectives that I lend my voice in opposition to LD 1463, “An Act Regarding Offenses against an Unborn Child.” This bill would have terrible consequences for survivors of violence. Moreover, it would do little to increase accountability for domestic violence perpetrators.
In fact, in my view, this bill does more harm to victims by inappropriately politicizing their pregnancy and the difficult personal experiences they have endured.
It is indeed the case that pregnancy is an extremely vulnerable time for those in domestic violence situations. It is troubling that domestic violence often escalates when a woman is pregnant. In fact, homicide remains one of the leading causes of death among pregnant women.
That is why advocates for survivors of domestic violence supported a bill passed in 2005 called the Motherhood Protection Act. It addresses the circumstances of pregnant women who are victims of violent crimes by assigning special weight to offenses against a pregnant woman.
Furthermore, Maine now recognizes a Class A crime of elevated aggravated assault on a pregnant person punishable by up to 30 years in prison. The bottom line is that Maine’s current laws acknowledge the unique circumstances of violence experienced by pregnant women and justly applies significance to the assault or homicide of a pregnant woman.
L.D. 1463 seeks to unravel this compromise law and in so doing, opens a Pandora’s Box of legal repercussions regarding the separation of the rights of a pregnant woman from the rights of her fetus. And to what end? The bill will do little to reduce domestic violence or hold perpetrators accountable.
There is no evidence that these laws, in the more than 30 states enacted have reduced domestic violence or effectively held perpetrators accountable.
What they have done is much more concerning. In states where such “unborn victims” laws are in place, they have resulted in the arrest of pregnant women and new mothers for crimes related to prenatal drug use or other behaviors.
As a society, we want to encourage pregnant women to seek help for substance abuse and mental health problems as early as possible in their pregnancies — but they will simply not do this if they are afraid of being prosecuted.
What’s more LD 1463 could actually place women in abusive relationships at further risk, as conceivably they may be prosecuted for failing to leave such relationships to protect their fetuses.
Because LD 1463 seeks to create a new class of crimes for harm to a fetus, it will establish legal rights for the fetus that are separate and distinct from the woman who carries it. Fetal personhood was rejected by the justices in Roe v. Wade. By using the term “unborn child” and creating a criminal offense separate and distinct from acts of violence committed against a pregnant woman, LD 1463 sets up an unacceptable tension between Maine law and the right to reproductive autonomy as guaranteed by Roe.
Rather than policing women, and rather than politicizing their pregnancies, let us focus our efforts and resources on appropriate education and intervention strategies to reduce domestic violence.
Pamela J. Boivin is a legal specialist at the Family Violence Project.