CONCORD — The family of a state representative is on a crusade to establish a fetal homicide law after the death of an unborn child in an auto accident last summer.
Rep. Leon Rideout, R-Lancaster, is the prime sponsor of House Bill 1503, which would add the death of an unborn child to the state's murder, manslaughter, negligent homicide and suicide statutes.
In the last 20 years, eight bills have been introduced to add similar language but all have failed. The most recent attempt came in 2012 when former Gov. John Lynch vetoed House Bill 217 and lawmakers failed to override.
At a public hearing Tuesday before the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, Rideout said the death of an unborn child through someone's negligence or criminal act devastates a family.
"This is not a women's issue," he said. "This is a family issue because the whole family suffers the impact."
Rideout's daughter, who was 34 weeks pregnant, was in a traffic accident in June when another driver ran a stop sign. The unborn child died as a result.
Calling his bill Griffin's law in honor of his unborn grandson, Rideout said his bill would bring justice and recognition for the unborn children killed because of carelessness and recklessness.
But the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union and NARAL opposed the bill, saying it creates a separate right for the unborn that will be used to erode the rights of women to make their own reproductive decisions.
"This bill makes a crime against a fetus separate from the harm or someone killed by criminal conduct," said NH Civil Liberties Union executive director Devon Chaffee. "When you have separate rights of the fetus, you start to erode the rights of the woman."
Rideout and other bill supporters said the bill is not about abortion rights, but about the rights of families and justice for those who cause the death of unborn children.
"This is about a mother's choice to carry a child," Rideout said, adding those who are pro-choice should also support his bill.
The bill would exempt abortion from the new designation, and Rideout said similar bills have withstood every constitutional challenge to date. The bill would add unborn children beyond the eighth week of pregnancy to the state's homicide laws.
Rideout said 38 states have fetal homicide laws including California, Illinois and Massachusetts. "If the very liberal state of California can protect the unborn, why can't the state of New Hampshire?" he asked.
Chaffee said a woman may not realize she is pregnant at eight weeks and that is still within the range of spontaneous miscarriages.
And she noted under the abortion exception, the woman has to ask for medical treatment, which may not be possible if she is unconscious as a result of an accident.
"This does not go far enough to safeguard a woman's rights," she said.
And Chaffee noted, the state has a law that provides additional penalties if a woman's unborn child is killed as a result of criminal activity such as an accident or assault.
Laura Thibault, MARAL NH executive director, said the focus should remain on crimes against women. In states with a separate right for the unborn, pregnant women are often targeted for detention, or arrest, she noted.Several committee members were concerned the proposed law could be used against pregnant women if they lost their unborn child due to their actions, but supporters said the bill is written so that could not happen.
Rep. Kathleen Souza, R-Manchester, who has sponsored similar bills over the years, said there have been 12 to 15 cases over the past few years where an unborn child has been killed due to someone's criminal activity, but their deaths have not been recognized under the justice system.
"In one year, three mothers lost babies on New Hampshire highways due to negligent homicide and they were not recognized," she said.
"This has never been turned down and this is very close to the ones that have been challenged and upheld. This will provide some relief to families who have lost a child."Former district court judge and Rep. David Huot, D-Laconia, proposed increasing the penalties under the homicide statutes when it involves the death of an unborn child.
He said the assault statutes increase the penalties if a women's unborn child is killed, but the homicide statutes do not.
"The focus needs to be on the punishment for someone who causes the death of an unborn child," Huot said. "Clearly the punishment needs to fit the crime."
The committee did not make an immediate recommendation on the bill.