Judge Dismisses Charges Against Woman Who Killed Her Unborn Child


Oct. 19, 2006 — -- A Virginia judge has dismissed charges today against a young woman who shot herself in order to kill her unborn child in a case that has angered anti-abortion activists.

Tammy Skinner was a poor, desperate 22-year-old with two young children and another one on the way.

She said her boyfriend wouldn't pay for an abortion, so she carried her pregnancy to term.

Then she did the unthinkable.

Prosecutors say that on the morning she was scheduled to give birth, Skinner drove to an auto dealer's parking lot, took a gun, and shot herself in the belly, killing the fetus in an act of self-abortion. Skinner was charged with carrying out an illegal abortion.

Is Skinner a criminal?

Today, a Virginia judge said no. The charges were dropped, her case dismissed.

Should he have ruled otherwise?

The law in question states that it is illegal to administer or cause an illegal abortion on an expectant mother.

But Skinner's defense lawyer, Kevin Martingayle, argued that the law did not make it a crime for a mother to cause her own abortion. Ultimately, that argument convinced Circuit Court Judge W. R. Carter.

If someone else had pulled the trigger, he or she would be criminally accountable. Because it was the pregnant woman herself, no crime was committed, the court ruled.

But the Commonwealth of Virginia filed a direct indictment against Skinner, putting her case back in the courtroom.

Skinner's case has legal analysts scratching their heads and anti-abortion activists pounding their fists.

To those activists, this is an unequivocal case of murder coupled with a failure of the courts to catch it.

In an online article, Keith Fournier, a Catholic deacon in Richmond, Va., wrote that equated Skinner's case with the abortion movement as a whole.

He criticized, in particular, the fact that Skinner's earlier charges had been dropped.

"This case reveals all the evil fangs on the evil face of legal abortion on demand," Fournier said.

In a written statement, Skinner admits to the tragic and gruesome act.

But she also provides a context for it, portraying a moment of desperate confusion stirred by constant mental abuse.

It all began just after 3 a.m. on Feb. 23, 2006.

"I couldn't sleep that morning, and I got up out of bed. I got dressed and grabbed my gun. I was having contractions -- so scared out of my mind," Skinner said in a written statement to authorities.

"I got somebody to load the gun, because I didn't know how. I got in the car. … Sat there for a while and told the Lord that my mind was not right. I pulled the trigger. … The gun went off."

After Skinner pulled the trigger, she called 911 and told the operator she had gotten into an argument with a man named Travis, who then shot her in the stomach.

Why did she do it?

Her written statement describes a woman driven to desperation by Jermaine Cottle, a boyfriend she said was verbally abusive.

Cottle told authorities that he refused to pay for her abortion early on.

"Jermaine would always tell me that no one would want me because I had three kids," she wrote. "He would always call me b-- all the time. He would just mentally abuse me by telling me negative stuff all the time. I just got stressed out and didn't know what to do."

In court documents, prosecutors say Skinner told Cottle that "she was going to fall down the steps to her apartment. … She was going to kill the baby."

"I felt I did not have any choices," Skinner wrote in her statement.

It is unclear whether Skinner explored options for a legal abortion before the shooting. She insists Cottle mentally abused her.

"All I know is that I didn't want to deal with him and his mental abuse for 18 years," she said. "I just can't handle it."

Is Skinner a criminal?

As complex as the question may be, the answer could come down to one word: "any."

Skinner's self-abortion took place well into her third trimester. Without special medical circumstances, terminating a pregnancy at that stage is considered illegal.

In Virginia law, if an abortion is deemed illegal, Statute 18.2-71 -- the hotly contested statute involved in this case -- makes a criminal out of "any person [to] administer to, or cause … any drug or other thing" with intent to destroy an unborn child.

Martingayle, the defense attorney, argued that there was nothing to contest. The meaning of the statute was crystal clear.

He said that "any person" meant anyone other than the mother, who is protected by the principal of expectant mother immunity.

Martingayle cites a 1997 Florida case in which a teenage mother shot her womb, effectively giving herself an abortion.

The woman in that case, State vs. Ashley, was acquitted, as was the mother in a similar 1998 case in Georgia.

On the other hand, the prosecution argues, that "any person" means all persons. The law applies to everyone, including a woman giving herself the abortion.

"Courts are bound by the plain meaning of that language. … 'Any' is an indefinite word and includes 'all' unless restricted," Virginia prosecutor James Wise wrote in court documents.

Paul Linton, special counsel for the anti-abortion group Thomas More Society, told ABC News that while the letter of the law seems to exclude Skinner from criminal liability, it doesn't mean the end of the prosecutor's case.

"The prosecution is [not] absolutely foreclosed by this language," Linton said. "I think it's a statutory interpretation question. … It's an open question, an unusual situation."

Martingayle does not see his client's case as an open question.

Moreover, he says, there is a dangerous public interest problem that comes with holding a woman legally responsible for her prenatal conduct.

Extending the illegal abortion law to include expectant mothers would open up many more questions and suspicions than the court could -- or perhaps should -- consider, he argues.

"What if she falls under the stairs under suspicious circumstances?" Martingayle asked. "What if she gains weight? Or not enough weight? What if she didn't follow the right diet or her doctor's recommendations? Was she trying to kill the baby?"

"It turns every expectant mother into a potential criminal," Martingayle said. "If they can convince a jury that she did it on purpose, than the expectant mother becomes a target."

Without question, Martingayle says, the allegations against his client are both serious and tragic.

But if the law changed to include expectant mothers, that would be something that should happen in the state legislature, not in the courthouse, he said.

Questions of prenatal culpability, Martingayle said, would "need to go through the legislative process, where words get carefully chosen."

"Bad facts cannot be allowed to make bad laws," he said.

Many in the anti-abortion camp see the handling of Skinner's case as an outgrowth of America's "abortion culture" -- and a reason to indict it.

David Brandao of the American Life League compares Skinner's to any other case of abortion that takes place.

"The Tammy Skinner case exposes the ugly underside of the abortion culture," Brandao said in his online blog. "Every 'choice' ends with a dead baby and a wounded mother, whether it happens in a public parking lot or in the antiseptic chambers of a 'reproductive health facility.'"

That's an opinion shared by Ann Scheidler, executive director of the Pro-Life Action League in Chicago.

Scheidler is highly aware of the vagaries of abortion law. Based on the rights granted to women under Roe vs. Wade, Scheidler was hardly surprised that there was debate over the Skinner case.

"If the right to kill the child resides totally in that child's mother -- which it does -- why would it be illegal for her to do this with a gun as opposed to with a suction vacuum machine in a doctor's office," she told ABC News.

Both anti-abortion and abortion-rights activists view Skinner's self-abortion as tragic, far from the optimal outcome for any woman. But if the answer for anti-abortion thinkers is restricting abortions, the abortion-rights answer is just the opposite.

According to Lynn Paltrow, executive director at Advocates for Pregnant Women, the way to prevent cases like Skinner's is to provide low-income women easier access to abortions and reproductive health resources.

"The question we shouldn't be asking is, 'What crime did she commit?' But, 'Why didn't she have access to abortion services? Why didn't she have access to mental health services?'" Paltrow said.

"When Medicaid does not fund abortion. … It is totally inappropriate to turn to the criminal justice system to respond to these problems," she said.

The long-term impact that Skinner's actions will have on the abortion debate remains to be seen. Should legislators redefine abortion laws to make expectant mothers criminally responsible for actions like Skinner's?

Her situation was noticed too late, and the way she sought a resolution was tragic and possibly criminal.

No matter what, the complex questions and tough decisions that come with her case seem far from resolved.

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