As funeral services continue this week for the 26 people killed in the Sutherland Springs church shooting, the community is remembering several members of the Hill and Holcombe families, including Crystal Holcombe and three of her five children. Holcombe was pregnant when a gunman took her life, and Texas law requires that her unborn baby also be counted among the dead.
An unborn baby was also among the victims in the 1966 UT Tower shooting, but that was before laws recognized a fetus as a crime victim.
Laurie Goodstein, the national religion correspondent at the New York Times, says these laws are about 30 years old.
“We believe the first state to have passed a law like this was Minnesota, and according to the National Right to Life Committee, they say it was in 1986,” Goodstein says. “It’s groups that oppose abortion that helped push for these laws, and they’re generally called fetal homicide laws.”
She says at least 38 states have passed laws like this, and a similar federal law was passed in 2004.
“Part of the instinct was to try to establish a legal justification for seeing the unborn baby as a human being – a full human being – with full legal rights,” she says.
Goodstein says the laws vary from state to state.
“Texas is among at least 23 states that say that the fetus is recognized as a full human being at every stage of gestation,” she says. “That’s the most sweeping of these laws. Some other states specify that it must be a viable fetus, so in other words, a fetus that is further along.”
The law comes into play beyond mass shootings, like in domestic violence cases. “It can also come into play in traffic accidents,” she says.
Abortion rights groups are “a little queasy about this whole discussion,” Goodstein says. “What they worry about is that these lay the groundwork potentially for criminalizing abortion itself.”
She says some of these laws make clear that that’s not the intent, though it’s clearly part of the legal strategy of some anti-abortion groups.
Written by Jen Rice.