The North Carolina General Assembly recently delivered a bill to the governor’s office. If she signs the bill into law, the penalties for causing the death or injury of a fetus will change dramatically. The Unborn Victims of Violence Act, or Ethen’s Law, would allow a charge of murder, voluntary or involuntary manslaughter, assault or battery of the fetus in addition to charges for any crime against the mother. What’s more, neither the defendant nor the mother needs to know she’s pregnant.
Not surprisingly, the bill sparked a good deal of controversy as it made its way through the General Assembly. For the most part, the debate focused on two provisions: the knowledge requirement and the age of the fetus provision.
Knowledge of the pregnancy.
The current law addresses injury to a pregnant woman during a felony, but not as a separate crime. If the defendant knew that the victim was pregnant, and if the injury resulted in a miscarriage or stillbirth, the offender would receive the penalty for the felony one level higher than the underlying crime. For example, involuntary manslaughter is a Class F felony. Involuntary manslaughter of a pregnant woman would be treated as a Class D felony.
The proposed scheme changes the outcome dramatically. First, neither the defendant nor the victim would have to know of the pregnancy. If a pregnancy is discovered after the crime’s been committed, the new law would allow the prosecutor to charge a suspect with the crime against the woman and the crime against the fetus.
Second, the crime against the woman and the crime against the fetus could be several penalty levels apart. Consider a woman who is unaware that she’s three weeks pregnant. She’s assaulted, and she miscarries. Under current law, the suspect would likely be charged with assault, a class 2 misdemeanor. The miscarriage is not a factor in the charges or the penalty, because the offender did not know of the pregnancy.
Under the new law, though, the crime against the woman would still be misdemeanor assault. The miscarriage could be prosecuted as a felony – involuntary manslaughter, for example – even though neither the woman nor the offender knew of the pregnancy. The penalties for both crimes could be imposed.
We’ll discuss the age of the fetus provision in our next post.
Source: North Carolina General Assembly, House Bill 215 (ratified), 4/20/11