A controversial bill modifying the investigative procedure for stillbirths and newborn deaths, AB 2223, passed through the California State Assembly Health Committee in an 11-3 vote on Tuesday, April 19th, stoking controversy between pro-life and pro-choice activists within the state.
Current California law requires a coroner investigation of stillborn deaths, defined as fetal deaths occurring 20 weeks or later into a pregnancy. In the majority of California counties, the sheriff acts as coroner, and bereaved mothers could face prosecution if the death is found to have been caused by negligence or substance abuse. AB 2223 would abrogate that and shield any “pregnant person” from prosecution for the death of an unborn child or perinatal deaths. The perinatal period is a term loosely defined as immediately before and immediately after birth, ranging from 1 week after birth to 2 years after birth (the perinatal period is not defined in the statute). Individuals who attempt to prosecute or investigate such cases or block various rights protected by the statute, including a right to abortion, could be fined up to $25,000 under the proposed law.
Supporters of AB 2223 argue that current law creates dangerous incentives by discouraging women from seeking prenatal care for fear of legal liability, and argue that the law is unevenly enforced, with black women far more likely to be reported to the authorities than white women despite similar levels of substance abuse. Sarah Roberts, a researcher from the University of California at San Francisco, testified that “Fear of jail or fear of having their child removed leads people to physically avoid and emotionally disengage from prenatal care,” while arguing in favor of the bill.
Opponents argue that the ‘perinatal death’ section of the bill would effectively legalize infanticide of children that have already been born. The bill was revised in committee to read ‘perinatal death due to pregnancy related causes’ to blunt these concerns, but ‘pregnancy related causes’ are not defined within the legislation. Critics, such as Susan Arnall, Vice President of the Right to Life League, argue that neglect, abuse or outright murder motivated by post partum depression could be a ‘pregnancy related cause’, while supporters such as Assembly member Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland) claim that such arguments are “disinformation”, unrelated to the text of the bill.
One woman prosecuted under the current law, Adora Perez, was sentenced to 11 years for manslaughter for having methamphetamine in her system during a stillbirth. Pro-choice advocates argue that such cases set a dangerous precendent, since holding women responsible for causing the death of their unborn children has obvious implications for abortion, at a time when many states have severely restricted access to abortions and progressives worry about the looming possibility that a conservative majority on the Supreme Court may overturn Roe v Wade. California is one of the most abortion friendly states in the country, enshrining abortion rights in its state constitution, and this is unlikely to change regardless of the court’s decision in any pending abortion cases.