When Is Abortion Murder? The Push for “Personhood” Makes it Unclear

One man tricked his ex-girlfriend into taking a drug that may have caused her to miscarry her 6 week embryo. He was charged with murder. Another man allegedly killed his pregnant wife, ending the life of the 15 week fetus she was carrying. His lawyers are arguing that the second death was actually an “unlawful abortion.”

What is different between the two situations? A lot. Examining the two cases shows exactly what a slippery slope criminal charges around the unborn can become.

In the case of Florida man John Weldon, who switched labels on a vial of drugs and told his ex-girlfriend that she needed to take antibiotics for an infection she didn’t actually have, their is little doubt that he intended to end her pregnancy — although whether it was actually the drug that caused the miscarriage or not can’t be medically proven at that point in the pregnancy.

In Minnesota, where Roger Holland is being accused of murdering his wife and, because it was wholly dependent on her, their 15 week pre-viable fetus, the intention may not have ever been to end the pregnancy. But with his lawyers trying to turn a second murder charge into an “unlawful abortion” argument, whether or not Holland intended to end the pregnancy with his actions (if he is found guilty of murdering his wife) could hinge on debate over what actually constitutes an abortion.

Muddying both of these examples is the push for fetal and embryonic “personhood,” a crusade that has been persued mostly through criminal codes because of an inability to get legislatures to pass bills to grant legal rights at the moment of conception, as well as such laws not making it through the courts because they are currently unconstitutional. Instead, numerous states passed laws that allowed additional criminal charges via “Unborn Victims of Violence” Acts, setting up the ability to charge a person with murder if a fetus dies during the commission of a separate crime, pointing to incidents like a pregnant woman beaten during a robbery or the loss of a pregnancy during a drunk driving accident.

Looking at that as the definition, then these two cases should be straight forward. In Minnesota, the fetus died as a result of the violent act committed on the woman who was carrying it. To try to deem it an abortion is absurd, especially if the argument is that the pregnancy unintentionally ended as a result of Holland’s murder.

In Florida, meanwhile, it is just as nonsensical to charge Weldon with “murder” of a 6 week embryo, even under the federal Unborn Victims of Violence act. In the Florida case the intent to cause an abortion is clear and deliberate, from obtaining the drugs to placing a false label on the package to creating a story for his ex-girlfriend to ensure she took the pills. Yet although no one should ever be placed in a position where a pregnancy is ended against her will, to call it an act of physical violence in comparison to a beating, stabbing or something similar is a stretch.

Looking at the two cases it seems obvious that Weldon is far more likely to have committed actions that could fall under the definition of “unlawful abortion” than Holland, and Holland caused far more physical harm. Yet Weldon was initially charged with murder, and Holland’s lawyer, meanwhile, is trying to argue his way out of such a charge.

As legal analyst Jessica Mason Pieklo notes, however, both cases rely on the same ominous anti-choice refrain: that the state has an interest in protecting fetal life. It’s that interest, and the way anti-choice activists continue to use it to press their agenda via both criminal and legislative measures, that is likely to lead to a point where all abortion is “unlawful” and every person involved will be charge with murder, be it an aggressor, a doctor or a pregnant person trying to end her own pregnancy herself.

Photo credit: Thinkstock


Jerome S
Jerome S9 months ago


Jim Ven
Jim Ven9 months ago

thanks for sharing.

Cathleen K.
Cathleen K4 years ago

These laws have been around for more than a quarter of a century and did not originally come from the anti abortion crowd; they came from DAs looking to increase charges against people who beat the crap out of pregnant women or drove recklessly and ran down a pregnant woman, ending the pregnancy but not the woman's life. Frustrated that they could only charge them with assault or attempted murder, they got lawmakers to enable them to charge them with actual murder. There had been some high profile cases where a boyfriend had instigated beatings with the admitted intent of ending a pregnancy, and where drunk drivers had run down pregnant women, and this was the response. The intent was never to convey fetal personhood, merely to punish some really shitty people. Of course, back then, no one took the antiabortionists seriously. They've only started getting results with the GOP within the last decade; prior to that, all they got was lip service.

Marianne C.
Marianne C4 years ago

@ Suba G:

I've often accused the Vatican of exactly that. I call it the Ducks Unlimited school of family planning: if we don't over-breed them right now, there won't be enough for us to prey on in the future.

Franck Rio
Past Member 4 years ago

Thanks for sharing

Marianne C.
Marianne C4 years ago

@ Pam W:

Another point neither of us had been rude enough to make (until this moment) is that specious logic is not the opposite of intellectual laziness, but a DEFINITIVE EXAMPLE of it. And trying to define a fetus non-parasitical by offering an example of how it's a parasite is specious.

Michael T.
Michael T4 years ago

@Stephanie said: These men ended the child's life by their action, in essence killing the child.

Actually, no, these men ended the life of a fetus. It is not a child until it is born.

Michael T.
Michael T4 years ago

I just got an email asking me to sign a petition.

What if you were forced to choose between a paycheck and a healthy pregnancy? That's the unbelievable decision that Julie faced when she was pregnant at work.

As a dedicated UPS employee, Julie's job required her to lift heavy packages up to 14 hours per day. She wanted to keep working at UPS, who regularly granted lighter duty to employees for other health reasons, but they refused it for her.

She was forced to take unpaid leave and watch the bills pile up.

She's not alone-far too many pregnant women in physically demanding jobs are punished with this impossible choice.

Apparently UPS doesn't give a damn about this idea of personhood via anti-woman/anti-choice Republicans CEO's. Generally they behave this way once a fetus is born.

pam w.
pam w4 years ago

Brandon..."I get tired of the intellectual laziness of people who call the unborn "parasites." It's totally self-serving, a way of dehumanizing what's in the womb. Compare calling various people "savages".

Since I'm one of those people who used the "parasite" word, let me respond. Kindly be less than intellectually lazy yourself and try to understand that word. Here...I'll help:

" An organism that grows, feeds, and is sheltered on or in a different organism while contributing nothing to the survival of its host."

A fetus is essentially a PARASITE, Brandon. Kindly keep your insults to yourself. Nobody said anything about "savages," although I've seen some anti-choice mobs demonstrate EXACTLY that kind of behavior.

Steffanie B.
Steffanie Byrnes4 years ago

I think the men should be charged the women wanted the children, and violent escalates when their partners becomes pregnant. My ex boyfriend was extremely abusive when I was pregnant, he drove crazy and threatened to kill us both, pushed me down stairs, beat me up a few times, and I think that more should be done when a man chooses to end a pregnancy or a life against the women. If the women was not pregnant, I doubt the husband would have killed her. In cases were the women wants the baby, and carry it to term, and the child's life is ended against her will by the father, then it is murder. These men ended the child's life by their action, in essence killing the child.