Legislators Express Concerns, Offer Changes to Personhood Bill

Bill could criminalize pregnant women in certain instances
Thursday, November 9, 2017

LANSING — State Rep. and Progressive Women’s Caucus Chairwoman Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) and state Reps. and PWC members Pam Faris (D-Clio), Vanessa Guerra (D-Saginaw) and Kristy Pagan (D-Canton) expressed their concerns today with House Bill 4500, which would require an embryo or fetus be considered a “person” when counting the number of victims of a crime for the sentencing of criminal defendants. If passed, this bill would allow Michigan courts to treat pregnant women convicted of various crimes more harshly, whether they knew they were pregnant or not.

“House Bill 4500 opens a dangerous conversation about what constitutes ‘personhood’ in our state, and seems to be a transparent attempt at weakening a woman’s constitutionally protected right to access abortion services down the road,” said Chang. “Beyond that troubling fact, this bill as written could lead to unequal and discriminatory punishment against women who are pregnant by allowing them to be charged with harsher sentences due to circumstances that may be beyond their control, or they may not even be aware of.”

“Other states that have laws similar to HB 4500 have used them to disproportionally punish pregnant women who have endured a miscarriage. We saw this happen not long ago when a woman in Indiana had a miscarriage and as a result was accused of feticide and sentenced to 20 years[1],” said Guerra. “There are many extenuating circumstances that courts must grapple with in each individual court case, which is why our amendments to the bill would have been so necessary to ensuring that women are not automatically victimized as a result of this bill’s language.”

Reps. Guerra, Faris and Pagan offered amendments to HB 4500 in an effort to mitigate its impact on women, which House Republicans defeated. The amendments offered would have:

  • Changed the requirement that an embryo or fetus must be counted as a person to state that an embryo or fetus may be included as a person (Guerra)
  • Changed the word “person” to “victim” (Faris)
  • Prohibited the counting of an embryo or fetus as a victim for a conviction in which the defendant is the pregnant woman and the embryo or fetus is carried by that pregnant defendant (Pagan)
  • Prohibited the scoring under sentencing guidelines unless the defendant knew of the pregnancy at the time the crime was committed (Pagan)

"The Michigan Court of Appeals held in 2016 that a fetus or embryo does not need to be declared a 'person' to qualify as a 'victim.' The definition in this bill is unnecessary, and could even be dangerous," Faris said. "Where laws similar to HB 4500 exist, pregnant women who are victims of abuse have been punished for endangering their pregnancy because they were violently attacked. Charging the victim of intimate partner violence with a crime against her pregnancy is inappropriate and unacceptable."

“HB 4500 is a slight of hand to criminalize a woman’s right to control her own body,” said Pagan. “My two amendments would have prohibited higher sentencing for a woman simply because she is pregnant and remove any mandates of taking a pregnancy test after a conviction. Access to reproductive health services, including abortion, is still the law if the land and we need to challenge any bill that would erode this important right for women.”

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[1] Testimony of Merissa Kovach, policy strategist, American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, House Judiciary Committee , Sept. 12, 2107.