The debate about abortion rights in North Carolina is tangled in the story of April Greer. The 20-year-old woman from Alamance County was found brutally murdered and dismembered in 2003--she was eight and one-half months pregnant with a baby she had already named Heaven Leigh. Her boyfriend, Jerry Lynn Stuart, has been arrested in connection with the murder and is awaiting trial.
If Senate Bill 200, also named "The Baby Greer Act," passes this session, those convicted of killing a pregnant woman will be charged with double homicide instead of a single murder.
Supporters of the bill say the law is needed to protect pregnant women from domestic violence. But pro-choice activists say the bill does little to prevent domestic violence and instead establishes a dangerous precedent that could damage abortion rights in the state.
"This bill has nothing to do with domestic violence and everything to do with establishing fetal rights," said Paige Johnson, director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of Central North Carolina. "The real issue here is women are more likely to be beaten when they are pregnant, and we need to address that."
According to Melissa Reed, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina, recognizing double homicide grants an unborn child the same legal status as a human being, a precedent that could erode the Roe v. Wade decision.
"What we're concerned about is by endowing a fetus with legal rights at all stages of human development, it elevates a 2-week-old embryo to the legal status of a person," said Reed. "That could erode the foundation of a right to choose as recognized by Roe."
In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade that abortion was legal in the United States because there was no precedent that established a fetus as a "person" entitled to protection under the 14th amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Johnson said Senate Bill 200 is part of a nationwide movement to establish this case law.
"This is part and parcel of a larger pack of legislation that people opposed to abortion have introduced across the county," Johnson said. "In that sense, we're not unique."
In 1997 the U.S. Congress passed Laci and Conner's Law, which established fetal murder in federal murder cases. In addition, 16 states have considered 20 measures that create fetal personhood in state criminal law. Only Louisiana and Mississippi have enacted this type of legislation.
However, supporters of the bill say stronger punishments for the murder of a pregnant woman are needed.
"It's about murder, not abortion," said Sen. Hugh Webster, R-Alamance, who is the primary sponsor of the bill. "I feel like we need to see the horror of killing a pregnant woman."
Webster said opponents' fears are unwarranted since the bill specifically states that legal abortions and medical treatments are excluded from the bill's scope.
"Certainly [the bill] does recognize the unborn child as a member of the human race, and in that sense it would grant additional legal recognitions," said John Rustin, director of government relations for North Carolina Policy Council, a nonprofit organization working for "traditional family values." "But, I don't think the intention is in that direction. It is simply to protect the pregnant woman and the unborn child."
Currently, North Carolina's "injury to pregnant woman" law, passed in 1998, says a person who knowingly kills a pregnant woman can be charged with a more severe crime if the act results in a miscarriage or a stillbirth. According to Senate Bill 200, a person can be charged with double homicide even if the woman and the perpetrator are unaware that the woman is pregnant.
Rep. Deborah Ross, D-Wake, was a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union in 1998 and worked to pass the "injury to pregnant woman" bill. Ross said the bill is a model for how states should address the murder of a pregnant woman--not Senate Bill 200.
"The fetal murder bill recognizes the fetus as a separate person and recognizes unintentional acts or acts that might injure the fetus as separate criminal acts," Ross said. "They want to recognize the fetus as a person."
Johnson said legislators who are concerned about the health of pregnant women in this state should focus on supporting laws and fully funding programs that prevent domestic violence instead of passing a fetal murder bill.
"Isn't the tragedy that [Greer] lost her life?" Johnson said. "Shouldn't we do everything we can to prevent that from happening to someone else?"