By Josh Kurtz
As lawmakers in Annapolis ponder legislation that would expand the state’s fetal homicide law, a poll conducted for the Maryland Catholic Conference shows strong support for the measure.
Sixty-two percent of those surveyed said they would support legislation to expand Maryland law to enable prosecution for the death of a fetus before the age of viability, while 26 percent were opposed and 12 percent were undecided.
The poll of 625 registered voters, conducted Feb. 20-22 by Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy of Washington, D.C., had a 4-point margin of error.
Maryland’s current fetal homicide law, enacted in 2005, establishes that a perpetrator can only be charged in the death of a fetus, as the result of an attack on a pregnant woman, if the fetus was viable. Because viability is considered to be around 24 weeks of pregnancy, advocates for the legislation under consideration argue that many violent offenders cannot be charged with a crime in association with an attack on a pregnant woman.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 38 states have fetal homicide laws – and 23 address homicides of women who are in the early stages of pregnancy.
The Maryland legislation, known as Laurie and Reid’s Law, was named for Laurie Wallen, a Howard County teacher who was allegedly murdered by her boyfriend last year when she was 14 weeks’ pregnant.
Hearings on the bill were held in the House (HB 748) and Senate (SB 533) last month and await legislative action. Tyler Tessier, who is accused of shooting Wallen to death, recently was granted a five-month delay for the start of his trial.
Sen. Justin D. Ready (R-Carroll) and Del. Trent M. Kittleman (R-Howard) are the lead sponsors.
The Senate bill has 13 sponsors – 12 Republicans and Baltimore City Sen. Barbara A. Robinson (D). The House version has 31 sponsors, all Republicans.
Many abortion rights advocates argue that the legislation is a back-door way of outlawing legal abortion in Maryland.
In a statement provided to WBFF-TV last week, Planned Parenthood of Maryland said, “It is a tragedy anytime a pregnant woman loses a pregnancy due to the criminal actions of another, and our legal system already punishes that person for their crimes… Unfortunately, legislation that changes current law to create a separate crime for the death of a fetus will not protect women or prevent these crimes from occurring.”
But people who are promoting the bill reject the assertion and say that the state’s current fetal homicide law has built-in protections and does not infringe on abortion rights.
Support for the legislation is fairly high throughout the state, the poll shows. Among the survey results:
- 73 percent of African-Americans supported expansion of the fetal homicide law, as did 68 percent of voters in Baltimore City.
- 55 percent of registered Democrats said they supported the legislation, while 32 percent said they did not; 60 percent of independents and 78 percent of Republicans said they supported the bill.
- With the exception of Montgomery County, voters in every jurisdiction surveyed said they are more likely to vote for someone who supports expanding the state’s fetal homicide law.
“Marylanders want domestic violence offenders and violent criminals prosecuted for ALL the crimes they commit, including the death of a fetus whose mother has chosen to carry the child to full term,” Mark Wallen, Laura Wallen’s father, said in a statement accompanying the poll results. “Maryland law already protects the choices of women who choose not to continue their pregnancies. It’s now time for the law to protect the women who choose to have their child but someone violently takes that choice away.”