A law under consideration in South Dakota would expand the definition of "justifiable homicide" to include killings that are intended to prevent harm to a fetus—a move that could make it legal to kill doctors who perform abortions. The Republican-backed legislation, House Bill 1171, has passed out of committee on a nine-to-three party-line vote, and is expected to face a floor vote in the state's GOP-dominated House of Representatives soon.
The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Phil Jensen, a committed foe of abortion rights, alters the state's legal definition of justifiable homicide by adding language stating that a homicide is permissible if committed by a person "while resisting an attempt to harm" that person's unborn child or the unborn child of that person's spouse, partner, parent, or child. If the bill passes, it could in theory allow a woman's father, mother, son, daughter, or husband to kill anyone who tried to provide that woman an abortion—even if she wanted one.
Not so, says Republican State Representative Phil Jensen, who is the primary sponsor of House Bill 1171. "This has nothing to do with abortion because abortion is a legal act," he said. "This only deals with protecting against illegal acts. We're trying to bring some continuity to South Dakota code. Making unborn children a protected class under the law is consistent with the rest of our state code."
On the continuity point, Jensen is referring to laws already on the books that allow state prosecutors to slap assailants who commit crimes resulting in the death of unborn children with charges of murder or manslaughter. Jensen said his proposed law expands that principle: "If someone walks up to a pregnant woman and starts punching her abdomen to abort her pregnancy, that woman, or her husband, could use justifiable force to save that child's life," he said, describing one scenario covered by the bill. Jensen emphasized that the law could not apply to abortion doctors carrying out legal procedures in accordance with consenting women's wishes. Here's the relevant portion of the statute, as written:
Homicide is justifiable if committed by any person in the lawful defense of such person, or of his or her husband, wife, parent, child, master, mistress, or servant, or the unborn child of any such enumerated person, if there is reasonable ground to apprehend a design to commit a felony, or to do some great personal injury, and imminent danger of such design being accomplished.
"Abortionists are committing legal acts," Jensen says, further clarifying how the law would not apply to legal abortion providers. Mother Jones reporter Kate Sheppard slyly acknowledges this fact by heavily qualifying her story's most explosive assertions -- stoking fears that the law is tantamount to legalizing murder of abortion practitioners all the while:
...a move that could make it legal to kill doctors who perform abortions.
...it could in theory allow a woman's father, mother, son, daughter, or husband to kill anyone who tried to provide that woman an abortion—even if she wanted one.
Again, according to the bill's author and the legislative language itself, the law could not -- theoretically or otherwise -- allow someone to murder providers of legal abortions. It's also worth noting that anti-abortionist violence has been overwhelmingly condemned and rejected by the pro-life community.