HELENA – The Montana House on Wednesday backed a proposal sought by abortion foes to criminalize the killing of a fetus.
The measure is steeped in abortion politics even though it exempts legal procedures, like abortion, and miscarriage from prosecution.
House Bill 104, which cleared an initial House vote 60-40, adds “unborn child” to homicide offenses. Currently, homicide laws cover the death of a human being.
Supporters argue it is necessary to place value on the fetus if an unborn child is killed during a crime. They say a fetus killed either through assault or murder of the mother should be treated as a separate crime.
A similar measure cleared the Legislature two years ago, only to be vetoed by former Gov. Brian Schweitzer. It was the first hot-button social issue to hit the House floor this session, and although debate was relatively mild compared to past years, there was some emotion.
Backers say the measure is modeled after federal law that already covers Indian reservations and military bases in the state.
“This bill is about one simple thing: A pregnant woman values her baby and if someone harms that baby, they should be punished,” said Sarah Laszloffy, R-Laurel.
Opponents argue the measure is full of anti-abortion overtones by creating a legal definition of “unborn child,” opens up a woman’s medical records to inspection during criminal trials and doesn’t really address the problem of violence against pregnant women. Critics say other states with similar measures have found the laws are not being used or prove difficult to prosecute, rarely resulting in a conviction.
At least 38 other states have some sort of “fetal homicide” law, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The abortion debate is expected to come up several times this session. Other proposals include another effort to advance a constitutional “personhood” amendment that defines when life begins, and a constitutional amendment saying there is no right to an abortion.