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Wyoming’s Fetal Homicide Bill
& The Death Penalty Repeal Amendment
Deacon Michael Leman | 22 April 2021
The Wyoming Legislature passed several pro-life bills this session. One bill prohibited higher educational institutions from using appropriated funds to purchase healthcare coverage that includes elective abortions. Another success was the Born Alive Infant-Means of Care bill. A slightly different version of this bill passed last year but was vetoed by Governor Mark Gordon. This time it passed, and the governor signed it.
In my opinion, perhaps the most important pro-life bill to pass was a fetal homicide law titled SF96 Homicide Amendments, sponsored by Senator Lynn Hutchings. Even though this bill did not directly impact abortion, advocates, and opponents of the bill both recognize that it will impact the way we talk and think about abortion in the future.
The bill created the possibility of first- and second-degree murder charges for crimes committed against a pregnant woman that results in the death of her preborn child. Prior to its enactment, Wyoming law only allowed for a penalty enhancement for the death of a preborn child if the mother died as well. If the mother survived and the child died prior to this bill, there was no possibility of a murder charge.
The bill had been brought unsuccessfully numerous times in the last two decades. Even though 39 other states have passed this law, its implications are still new to our conversations in Wyoming. Several pro-life legislators have pointed out the fact that homicide is the number one cause of death for pregnant women in the U.S.
Abortion advocates protested that the bill would be a step to establishing the personhood of the unborn. One advocate for NARAL Pro-Choice Wyoming, an organization that regularly professes its concern for the rights of women, suggested that the bill could have unintended consequences. For instance, she said if it passed, a divorced woman who experienced a miscarriage would be able to accuse her ex-husband of murder.
This new law acknowledges what science has clearly proven- that human life begins at conception. One cannot be charged with murdering “tissue” or a “clump of cells.” It also points out the inconsistency of abortion law since "abortion rights" mean that being human and being alive are, in fact, not sufficient qualifiers for full legal protection. Since the passage of Roe, U.S. law has required a third qualifier- a living human being must now also be wanted.
Anyone who has ever felt unwanted, for any reason, must question how defending such a precedent will impact human rights. Pro-life advocates in all 40 states that have passed this law cannot emphasize this point enough.
The bill was introduced in the Senate and passed by a vote of 26-4.
A third reading amendment was introduced in the House, which sought to remove the death penalty as a possible sentence for the newly added charges. The amendment faced much opposition, even from representatives who generally support repealing Wyoming’s death penalty law. Their objection was procedural in nature as they said that the amendment violated a state constitutional requirement which says that amendments must be germane to the original bill.
Ultimately, the House Speaker ruled that the amendment was not germane to the bill. But the debate was very interesting as legislators from across the political spectrum debated whether challenging the death penalty was germane to a life-related bill.
It is understood that many who support the full legal protection of the preborn do not necessarily support repealing the death penalty. The Diocese of Cheyenne has been advocating for both for many years to the chagrin of some of our pro-life friends. One man even told me he thought that supporting the repeal of the death penalty would hurt the pro-life cause.
While I completely disagree, there is, at least, a reasonable argument to be made for the claim. One friend points out the fact that the death penalty is only used as a penalty for crimes whereby someone has taken a life. Therefore, he says, it reminds the public that the right to life holds a sacred space in our laws.
When I hear my friends attempting to defend their support of the death penalty by making exceptions, it sounds like they are attempting to justify their own “qualifiers” for the sanctity of life. They move from calling life sacred to saying “innocent” life is sacred.
The very attempt to qualify something in human terms broadcasts to the world that the thing is actually “not sacred.” If we think we can set the terms of the thing considered, we are most definitely treating it as something that is not sacred.
Worse yet, to grant the state power to destroy what is supposedly sacred is a terrible and dangerous precedent. It undercuts our work to protect religious freedom.
Americans across the political spectrum must ask, “If being alive and being human are not the criteria for full protection under the law, what other qualifiers are there? And who gets to set them?” It is in the best interest of every security-seeking American to learn the answers to these questions. And it is the responsibility of our legislators to answer them.
SF96 passed the House by a vote of 50-9 with one excused and was signed by Governor Gordon. The debate that led to this new law and the implications it brings will change the way Wyomingites think about building a Culture of Life.
Deacon Mike Leman
Diocese of Cheyenne in the office of Catholic Social Teaching