March 6, 2009

Proposed laws increase penalties for terminating unborn’s life

By Brigid Curtis Ayer

Is terminating the life of an unborn baby a crime? The answer to this question depends on the part of the Indiana Code, the body of laws that govern the state, which a person is reading.

In one section, terminating an unborn baby’s life through abortion is legal but, in another section, terminating the life of an unborn baby is a crime called feticide.

Despite this contradiction in the law, state lawmakers voted overwhelmingly in support of two measures recognizing greater rights of unborn children. One measure increases criminal penalties for persons committing feticide, and the other expands wrongful death civil lawsuits, allowing parents to collect damages when the life of their unborn child is ended.

Senate Bill 236, authored by Sen. James Merritt (R-Indianapolis), would increase the penalty for feticide from a Class C felony to a Class B felony.

Similar to the crime of homicide, if a person kills an unborn baby while committing or attempting to commit murder or another crime, he or she commits feticide. A person found guilty of causing the death of a child in utero may be sentenced to an additional prison term of six to 20 years. In criminal actions, the state prosecutes on behalf of the victim for crimes committed.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 36 states currently have fetal homicide laws. Indiana would join at least 19 states that have fetal homicide laws that apply to the earliest stages of pregnancy, including the following descriptions of life: “any state of gestation,” “conception,” “fertilization” or “post-fertilization.”

For the purposes of feticide, Senate Bill 236 defines an unborn baby as “child in utero at any stage.” Senate Bill 236 passed the Indiana Senate by a 40-9 vote.

In criminal lawsuits, penalties for killing an unborn child would be increased under Senate Bill 236.

Wrongful death laws in civil lawsuits would be expanded under another proposal, the wrongful death or injury of a child bill. Senate Bill 341 was authored by Sen. Brent Steele (R-Bedford).

The bill would expand wrongful death to include an unborn baby that has reached viability. Under the bill, viability is defined as a fetus that could survive outside the womb, which is about seven months gestational age. The bill passed the Senate by a 47-2 vote.

The proposed legislation addressing fetal death was prompted by an incident that occurred in Indianapolis in April 2008. A bank teller, who was pregnant with twins, was shot during an attempted bank robbery. She survived the gunshot wound, but her unborn twins did not. The woman was five months pregnant.

Marion County prosecutors were unable to prosecute for manslaughter, a criminal charge, because the babies needed to be seven months old under criminal law. The couple was unable to collect damages under Indiana’s wrongful death statute because the children were unborn.

Under Senate Bill 341, they would still be unable to file a wrongful death civil lawsuit because the bill would only allow for this for viable fetuses. However, in a criminal action, the perpetrator could have received a stiffer sentence under Senate Bill 236.

The Indiana Catholic Conference (ICC), the Church’s official representative on public policy matters, supports the bills.

“The Church is supportive of legislation that provides greater recognition, value and respect for the unborn human person,” said Glenn Tebbe, ICC executive director.

Senate bills 236 and 341 now move to the House for further consideration.

(Bridget Curtis Ayer is a correspondent for The Criterion. To learn more about the Indiana Catholic Conference, log on to

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