From fetus to baby

Posted: Dec 21, 2004 12:00 AM

In a spectacular murder case in Missouri, Lisa Montgomery strangled to death Bobbie Jo Stinnett, who was eight months pregnant. Montgomery cut open Stinnett's womb and kidnapped her child. This is a horrific crime that, like the Scott Peterson case, opens an uncomfortable window into our culture's tortured reasoning on anything related to unborn life.

    During the coverage of the crime, the status of the Bobbie Jo Stinnett's unborn girl steadily changed. All at once on AOL News during the weekend, there were headlines tracking events in the case: "Woman Slain, Fetus Stolen"; "Woman Arrested, Baby Returned in Bizarre Murder"; "Infant in Good Health." Note how a "fetus" -- something for which American law and culture has very little respect -- was somehow instantly transformed into a "baby" and "infant" -- for which we have the highest respect. By what strange alchemy does that happen?

    An AP story effected this magic transition all in one sentence: "Authorities said Montgomery, 36, confessed to strangling Bobbie Jo Stinnett of Skidmore, Mo., on Thursday, cutting out the fetus and taking the baby back to Kansas." At one point, when Montgomery was still at large, an Amber Alert went out about the Stinnett girl, putting news organizations in the strange position of reporting such an alert for what many of them were still calling a "fetus."

    Given that fetuses are routinely destroyed in America (and legally can be destroyed up to the point of delivery), it was odd to see such an uproar about the welfare of one. Indeed, it is tempting to say that from a pure legal point of view, Lisa Montgomery simply killed the wrong victim, taking the life of the mom instead of the fetus.

    But that's not entirely true. Earlier this year Congress passed the Unborn Victims of Violence Act partly in reaction to the Peterson case, making it a crime to harm an unborn baby while assaulting the mother. Kate Michelman, president of NARAL, complained that President Bush is doing "everything in his power to restrict a woman's right to choose." Right to choose what? To have her baby harmed by an assailant?

    Pro-choicers realize that recognizing the legal status of a fetus in any way undermines a crucial philosophical support of the pro-choice position -- that a baby in the womb has no rights that we are bound to respect. The Missouri "Unborn Child" law, which is in play in the Stinnett case, says "unborn children have protectable interests in life, health, and well-being." The attitude behind that law is impossible to square with the animating principle of Roe v. Wade, which protects any abortion, any time.

    The Stinnett case is unusual, but violence against pregnant women -- usually committed by the biological fathers -- is not. According to The Washington Post, homicide is the leading cause of death in pregnant women. It is partly because the boyfriends or lovers decide they don't want the "fetus." As the Post put it in explaining one typical murder, the father "at first denied it was his child, then pressed for an abortion, then plotted murder." "It seems to me that these guys hope against hope for a miscarriage or an abortion, but when everything else fails, they take the life of the woman to avoid having the baby," Jack Levin of Northeastern University told the Post.

    When we mourn not just for the women, but for the babies destroyed in such terrible acts, we commit a kind of transgression against the strictest pro-choice orthodoxy. Pro-choicers have a hard time explaining why, if Bill Clinton was right that abortion should be "legal, safe and rare," the practice should be rare. One reason is that there is a continuity between the "fetus" and "baby."

    Otherwise, why do we rejoice over ultrasound images of the unborn? Why do we give them names? Why do we pray for their health and happiness? Why are we so quick to go from calling them fetuses to babies?

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