Fact Check-California reproductive health bill leads to misinterpretation online

A newspaper article suggesting a proposed California reproductive health bill would legalize the maternal killing of newborn babies, a claim that quickly spread on social media where users claimed the bill would legalize infanticide, misinterpreted the bill, experts told Reuters. The California Assembly member who introduced the bill filed amendments to further clarify the language used.

The online Miami Standard story ran with the headline: ‘California introduces new bill that would allow mothers to kill their babies up to 7 days after birth’. (here).

It refers to the bill as an “INFANTICIDE bill that would legalize the murder of children up to nine months gestation and in the week(s) after birth.”

A Twitter post sharing a screenshot of the article has had over 6,000 reactions (here) and reads, “A tsunami of evil is sweeping the West. I can’t even begin to comprehend the depths of this depravity”. Another wrote: “I can’t wrap my head around this… Is this for real or some sick joke or fake news?” (here)

The bill, introduced by California Assembly Member Buffy Wicks, is available to read in full (here).

The part of the bill that is generating the most concern is Section 7(a) which reads: “Notwithstanding any other law, a person shall not be subject to civil or criminal liability or penalty, or otherwise deprived of their rights, based on their actions or omissions with respect to their pregnancy or actual, potential, or alleged pregnancy outcome, including miscarriage, stillbirth, or abortion, or perinatal death.”

The worry for several readers and commentators online is the language around “perinatal death”, which some fear exempts parents from prosecution for murder. One Twitter user quoting this section wrote, “Here is the worrying part” (here)

A representative for Wicks quoted him as saying about the online claims: “Anti-abortion activists are peddling an absurd and disingenuous argument that this bill is about killing newborns, when ironically, the part of the bill they’re pointing to is about protecting and supporting parents experiencing the grief of pregnancy loss.” “No person should face prison time for a tragic pregnancy outcome, and this bill will ensure that prosecutions and investigations have no place in reproductive health care.”

The representative said Wicks filed amendments to the bill on Monday to further clarify the language and clear up misinterpretations that “perinatal deaths” meant anything other than mothers losing their babies due to pregnancy-related causes.

The amendment would change the wording of section 7a to read: “Notwithstanding any other law, a person shall not be subject to civil or criminal liability or penalty, or otherwise deprived of their rights under this article, based on their actions or omissions with respect to their pregnancy or actual, potential, or alleged pregnancy outcome, including miscarriage, stillbirth, or abortion, or perinatal death due to a pregnancy-related cause”.

Dr Anne Richardson-Oakes, director of the centre for American legal studies at Birmingham City University, makes it clear that infanticide would relate to a separate law.

“Whatever the definition of ‘perinatal’ the offenses of murder and infanticide will be separately defined offences under California’s criminal law,” she says.

The California penal code states: “Murder is the unlawful killing of a human being, or a fetus, with malice aforethought.” (here)

The bill doesn’t define what is meant by perinatal death. The Miami Standard reckons it is a fatality up to seven days after birth.

University College London Hospital clinical lecturer in infertility and a leading voice on medical ethics, Dr Francoise Shenfield, told Reuters: “Definition of perinatal death is stillbirth, plus early neonatal deaths under seven days.”

Rather, the bill seeks to protect parents from legal prosecution if that perinatal death is the result of accidental causes, she said.

Farah Diaz-Tello, JD, Senior Counsel & Legal Director at If/When/How: Lawyering for Reproductive Justice, told Reuters, “The bill as written reinforces existing California law that protects people from being criminalized based on an accusation that something they did or did not do during pregnancy caused a certain pregnancy outcome.”

She says that as written the bill “acknowledges, as do many other statutes across the country prohibiting criminalization of pregnancy outcomes, that sometimes an incident that occurs during pregnancy leads to the loss of the baby after it is born.”

Diaz-Tello provided a real life example to help explain a possible scenario where this might apply: “Including protections for parents who experience the trauma of ‘perinatal death’ as ​​an outcome of pregnancy, ensures that a parent who did not go on bed rest [because their work arrangements did not allow for this, for example] can’t be prosecuted because the pregnancy-related loss occurred after delivery rather than during the pregnancy.”

Wicks’ representative reiterated the “overall intention of the bill is to ensure that no one in the State of California is investigated, persecuted, or incarcerated for ending a pregnancy or experiencing pregnancy loss”.

As recent examples, they shared the cases of Chelsea Becker and Adora Perez, which were covered by the Los Angeles Times (here), (here).

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