Friday, October 27, 2006

Random Words Matter

You'd think that a common three-letter word wouldn't upset someone. Imagine being upset by the word "any". But that little word is the cause of a great deal of Sturm und Drang among the anti-abortion crowd of Virginia.

It comes down to one judge, one critical word, and one pregnant woman who shot herself as a form of self-induced abortion.

This mother, with little in the way of resources, beyond access to a gun, shot herself in the abdomen when she went into labor rather than face having yet another child, a child whose father was an abusive excuse for a man. A full-term child, who was about to make its entrance into the world, dead because its mother had really bad judgment all the way around.

Under Virginia law, "Any person who knowingly performs partial birth infanticide and thereby kills a human infant is guilty of a Class 4 felony." Is the mother "any" person? The anti-abortion activitists say yes; the judge says no. And rightly so.

If courts hold the mother accountable for an action that may lead in turn to the premature death of her fetus, then the courts would be opening the door to the prosecution of mothers who don't eat right, or enough, and her body rejects the fetus as a way of preserving itself. Or mothers who cannot seem to kick the habit of smoking while pregnant and the child is unable to come to term due to damage caused by that habit. Drugs, drinking, failure to follow doctors' advice, a fall down the stairs -- all could lead to the prosecution of the mother.

The human species is not generally known for its brilliance. We make piss poor decisions every day. Throw in some wildly fluctuating hormones into the mix and those decisions get even worse. As an example, take the recent report that pregnant teenagers in Great Britain are taking up smoking from the moment they find out they're pregnant in order to keep the baby's weight down and thus have a less painful labor. Not exactly Nobel Prize winning brilliance, that.

But back to our hapless mother with a bullet wound. I understand the need for such laws and the need to protect a pregnant woman from a man who's less than pleased with her and her pregnancy. This case goes beyond that. This woman was the victim of a lot of things, not the least of which was circumstance. Just like the rest of us, she should be held accountable for her actions. She should have been charged with discharging a firearm in a public place, or for making a false report. Instead, the D.A. chose to push for this Class 4 felony charge.

The judge rightly said that the woman was both victim and instigator; she does not count as just "any" person.

A look at the end of the law makes this a little bit clearer: "The mother may not be prosecuted for any criminal offense based on the performance of any act or procedure by a physician in violation of this section." Meaning that a woman may make the choice to abort late-term, but it is the physician who carries out the act who is legally responsible. As the mother, Tammy Skinner is absolved because she was not a 'physician' who shot the fetus.

All this has the moral conservatives in a tizzy. In their mind, no one, not even the mother herself, should be able to get away with shooting a pregnant woman in the abdomen, killing her fetus. To them, 'any' means absolutely any. To the D.A., 'any' means 'all'. To the court, 'any' means 'any', but not necessarily 'all' -- the mother would be included in 'all' but not in 'any' -- given the final section of the statute. If the legislature meant 'all', it would have written 'all' into the law.

Amazing the power of a simple, three-letter word.
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