Oct. 15, 2009 — -- Angry Utah legislators are moving to close a legal loophole that bars prosecuting a teenager who allegedly hired a man to beat her to induce a late-term miscarriage.
The legislative move stems from outrage that the teenage girl, whose identity is being withheld because of her age, was released from jail. She was seven months pregnant at the time of the attack.
The furor erupted after Judge Larry Steele ruled that while the teen's actions were "shocking and crude," they fit the state's definition for an abortion and, therefore, she "cannot be held criminally liable for her actions."
The Utah abortion statute says it is a crime to perform an abortion on a woman who is more than 20 weeks pregnant, but ensures that there would be no criminal penalties for a woman seeking an abortion.
The statute also defines an abortion as "any and all procedures" taken to kill a "live unborn child," and doesn't specify that it has to be done by a medical professional to qualify as an abortion under the law.
Some conservative state representatives argue that Steele misread the statute and that any woman who tries to perform an abortion without the help of a medical professional, much like this teen allegedly did, should be eligible for murder charges.
"The law says a woman can't be prosecuted for having an abortion, but I wouldn't declare this an attempted abortion. She tried to kill the unborn baby and to me, that is outright attempted murder," said State Rep. Paul Ray.
Ray and others want to fix this.
"What we're going to do is strictly define what an abortion is and strictly make it a medical procedure in a medical facility," said Rep. Carl Wimmer, who is co-authoring the bill with Ray.
The 17-year-old entered a no contest plea in May 2009 on charges of second-degree felony criminal solicitation of murder, according to the court documents.
But according to the teen's lawyer, Rich King, the plea came after the teen lied to police, saying that she had actually paid the man $150 to beat her up in an attempt to abort her baby.
"It is established that the man beat her, but not that she hired him," said King.
King claims his client fabricated the story of paying the man after hours of interrogation during which she had grown tired.
"Women may use any procedure or method of terminating pregnancy, by abortion or by miscarriage, and they cannot be charged with a crime," said King.
The teen, who is not granting interviews, was released from the juvenile detention center Monday. Her baby, who survived the beating, was born in early August and is currently living with a foster family. According to King, the teen is working to get custody of the baby.
Aaron Harrison, the 21-year-old charged with beating the teen, pleaded guilty to second-degree felony attempted murder in September, according to the Associated Press. He is due in court for sentencing later this month.
State Prosecutor Mike Drechsel claimed that Harrison's actions do not fit the definition of an abortion, according to court documents. Steele disagreed, writing that an abortion does not have to be performed by a licensed physician.
It is that reasoning that has angered several state legislators who are now vowing to rewrite the state's abortion laws to ensure that another case like this one would have resulted in the woman getting charged with murder.
"We'll go and fix the legislation so that anything outside a physician-attempted abortion will be deemed a homicide," said Ray.
Wimmer said Steele "stretched" the law improperly in his ruling.
"What Steele said was that this man's actions of beating this girl was an abortion, just a regular abortion," said Wimmer.
"To draw the conclusions and the similarities between a medical procedure and hiring some thug to beat you until you have a miscarriage is absurd," said Wimmer, who is also the chair of the right-to-life advocacy group the Utah Family Action Council.
Wimmer said that this so-called loophole was born out of legislation that was passed last year to target doctors who were performing illegal abortions. According to Wimmer, the legislation included a clause that removed the mothers from liability in these illegal abortions and led to Steele's ruling.
"There are these conflicting laws. You can't have an abortion after 20 weeks and the woman can't be held criminally liable," said Wimmer. "The judge in this case really just decided which one he wanted to follow."
Wimmer said he's confident that changes to the statute will be passed by an "overwhelming majority" in January.