House passes bill to make killing fetuses a crime

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Killing or injuring a fetus at any stage of development would be a crime under a bill passed by the Florida House on Friday.

The House voted 74-42 for the bill that expands a current law, which allows for murder or manslaughter charges if a fetus dies after it has developed to the point where it can survive outside the womb. Current law also doesn't apply to injured fetuses.

The case of Remee Jo Lee, a Tampa-area woman who had a miscarriage after being tricked into taking abortion pills by her ex-boyfriend, was mentioned by opponents and supporters during debate.

"The child died and Remee Lee and her family get a life sentence. They suffer every day," said Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole and the bill's sponsor. "And the perpetrator of this crime who admitted his guilt to the police was not even arrested immediately because they weren't sure how to charge him. It took the FBI and federal investigators to finally come in and charge him."

Federal authorities initially charged John Welden with killing Lee's unborn child and he faced up to life in prison. That charged was dropped when Welden agreed to plead guilty to product tampering and he was sentenced to nearly 14 years in prison.

Rep. Mike Clelland agreed that Lee's situation was tragic, but said that the bill is too broad and could apply in cases like car accidents where the driver at fault never intended to harm a fetus.

"This bill speaks to any crime - any crime - without regard to one's knowledge that the victim is pregnant (and) subjects those folks who commit much, much less serious crimes than an intentional act of giving someone an abortion pill to serious criminal penalties," said Clelland, D-Lake Mary.

Other Democrats raised concerns about enforcement.

Rep. Elaine Schwartz said it could be impossible to know in some cases whether a miscarriage is caused by actions during a crime or for other reasons. She also was worried that first responders at accidents would subject women to personal questions.

"Women will be subjected to questioning, to interrogation whenever there is an accident or some event when their injured. Are they pregnant? When was the last time they had intercourse? It is intrusive," said Schwartz, D-Hollywood. "It's much too broad, it's unenforceable and it is part of a war on women."

Lee watched the debate from the House gallery while holding the sonogram images of the 6-week old fetus.

"I don't want this to happen to anybody else, I don't want any other unborn children to suffer from this, I don't want any other woman to go through what I've been through," she said afterward.

Gov. Rick Scott is anti-abortion and believes the lives of unborn children must be protected, his spokesman John Tupps said. The governor will review any final legislation that makes it to his desk, he said.

Penalties for killing or injuring a fetus under the bill (HB 59) would be the same as if the crimes were committed against a person, except that the death penalty could not be sought.

Similar bills have been filed and died nearly every year since the law applying to viable fetuses was passed in 2005.

Also Friday, a parallel bill was discussed in the Senate, where Democrats raised similar questions.

Senate sponsor Sen. Kelli Stargel said some couples spend months or years and sometimes thousands of dollars trying to have a baby and the stage of development shouldn't matter.

"Just because that baby wasn't viable, doesn't mean it doesn't matter," she said.

Copyright 2014 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.