UPDATE 3:14 p.m.: This post has been updated to include a statement from Colorado Right to Life..
A Colorado woman accused of cutting a baby from the womb of a seven-months pregnant woman — killing the fetus and severely injuring the expectant mother — faces more than 100 years in prison if convicted. But prosecutors did not charge Dynel Lane with murder for the death of the child Michelle Wilkins was expecting and had planned to name “Aurora.”
On Tuesday, a new bill was introduced to the Colorado Senate directly in response to the horrific attack. The bill, its supporters say, would make it easier for prosecutors to bring murder charges against those, like Lane, who are accused of killing a fetus. The new measure’s opponents, however, have argued that the bill is too similar to previous proposals in the state that would have included fetuses in the state’s definition of a person.
Senate President Bill Cadman, a Republican, promised the bill shortly after Lane was charged last month. At the time, Boulder County District Attorney Stanley Garnett explained that a murder charge is “not possible under Colorado law without proof of a live birth,” and that an autopsy was unable to establish that the fetus lived outside of the womb after the attack. Instead, Lane faces an attempted murder charge, multiple counts of assault and a felony charge of “termination of a pregnancy” for the death of the child Wilkins was expecting.
Cadman’s bill is the latest entry in a long debate over how to prosecute crimes that involve the death of a fetus in Colorado. The state’s voters have considered — and rejected — a handful of ballot measures that would have changed the state’s criminal code to define a fetus as a “person.” It happened most most recently in 2014.
Although the 2014 measure’s supporters said those proposals would not pertain to the state’s abortion access laws, its opponents argued that the proposals would effectively ban abortions in the state.
The new bill, as introduced, would change the definition of “person” in the state’s homicide and assault statutes, including one considered by the prosecutors who charged Lane. Right now, that statute says that a “‘person’ when referring to the victim of a homicide, means a human being who had been born and was alive at the time of the homicidal act.”
Cadman would change the definition to read that “‘person’ … means a human being and includes an unborn child at every stage of gestation from conception until live birth.”
The proposal includes three exceptions: First, for acts committed by “the mother of her unborn child”; second, for “a medical procedure performed by a physician or other licensed medical professional at the request of a mother of her unborn child or the mother’s legal guardian”; and third, for “the lawful dispensation or administration of lawfully prescribed medication.”
In an interview with The Post while the bill was still being drafted, Cadman said that he hoped his proposal would bring Colorado’s laws in line with those of 38 other states that “provide justice” for crimes in which a fetus dies.
While drafting his own proposal, Cadman said he looked at other states’ fetal homicide laws that were “already on the books” and “already passed muster.” One example, Cadman said: California’s fetal homicide law, which defines murder as the unlawful killing “of a human being, or a fetus.” Like the Colorado proposal, California’s law contains multiple exemptions.
In the end,
Cadman has said that the bill, if passed, would ensure that a pregnant woman in the state is “protected to make her own choice” about whether to continue a pregnancy or to seek an abortion, “just like she is now.”
But some Democrats in the state legislature are concerned that the bill is simply another attempt to pass a personhood measure in the wake of a tragic crime. State Sen. Pat Steadman, a Democrat from Denver, released a statement to the Denver Post saying that he is “disappointed that the Republicans are choosing to use what happened to the Wilkins family to get ‘personhood’ into law.”
But Colorado Right to Life, a key supporter of personhood in the state, says it does not support the new bill:
“Because they chose to include language that is not life-affirming and in fact, legitimizes Planned Parenthood’s grisly business of killing babies, Colorado Right to Life has no choice but to honor God and oppose the bill, as written,” the group said in a statement, calling on Sen. Cadman to amend the bill.
National Right to Life, a national organization not affiliated with the Colorado group of a similar name, supports Cadman’s bill, Legislative Director Douglas Johnson said.
Opponents of “personhood” — including those in Colorado — have argued that measures seeking to define a fetus as a “person” could lead to increased restrictions to abortion access in the state, or in the case of more broad personhood proposals, ban it altogether.
Some who oppose the measure have noted that Colorado already has a law on the books allowing for a felony charge for the death of a fetus. Lane was charged with unlawful termination of a pregnancy, which in Lane’s case carries a possible sentence of 10 to 32 years in prison. That law was a result of a legislative effort to address how prosecutors can charge suspects who end a woman’s pregnancy.
State Rep. Mike Foote, a Democrat who ushered the passage of that bill in 2013, told ABC affiliate KMGH that the current laws already allow for the severe punishment in such crimes, even if the state doesn’t call it “murder:”
“That’s why we wrote the bill that we did in 2013. [It] was to cover this gap, but not putting personhood in our statutes. That would be against the will of the voters,” said Foote. “Our law is in place. It’s just called something different state to state. Some call it murder, some call it manslaughter, some call it assault; we call ours ‘unlawful termination of a pregnancy.'”
But the question of what the state calls the death of a fetus is an important issue for those who support strengthening Colorado’s laws.
The Denver Roman Catholic Archdiocese released a statement from Archbishop Samuel Aquila shortly after Lane was charged, criticizing the existing state law because it did not allow for a murder charge.
“The vast majority of Coloradans believe, as I do, that when the unborn child of a pregnant woman is murdered, as baby Aurora was, a homicide has been committed. St. John Paul II reminded us in the Gospel of Life that “There can be no true democracy without a recognition of every person’s dignity and without respect for his or her rights. Nor can there be true peace unless life is defended and promoted.” The laws of Colorado should reflect this reality and it is up to each one of us to call upon our elected officials to enact laws that recognize the fact that the unborn can in fact be victims of horrendous crimes such as homicide.”
Jennifer Kraska, the Executive Director for the Colorado Catholic Conference, said in an emailed statement on Wednesday that the statewide policy office is “pleased to see a bill that will address this inadequacy and follow the lead of the majority of states and the federal government.”
Cadman’s bill has been assigned to the state senate’s judiciary committee.