Local News

Vigil Raises Calls For N.C. Fetal Homicide Law

Posted July 9, 2007 5:46 p.m. EDT
Updated July 10, 2007 10:38 a.m. EDT

— During a candlelight vigil for an unborn baby that died last month when his mother was murdered, scores of people called Monday for a state law to make killing a pregnant woman a double murder.

"An unborn child should be recognized if the mother's killed," said Kevin Blaine, whose daughter, Jenna Nielsen, was stabbed to death June 14.

"Right now they recognize my daughter's murder. But they don't recognize my unborn grandson's murder or as a person, for that matter," said Blaine.

Nielsen, 22, of Fuquay-Varina, was eight-months pregnant when she was killed as she refilled USA Today newspaper boxes. Her body was found behind a Lake Wheeler Road convenience store.

Nielsen is the third pregnant woman killed in the Triangle in just over two years. Michelle Young was found beaten to death in her Wake County home in November. Janet Abaroa was found stabbed to death in her Durham home in April 2005.

Nielson's family and supporters at the vigil are "trying to get the state to recognize the fetus as a person. It's one of the only few states that doesn't, and we are here to help change that," said Nielsen's husband, Tim Nielsen.

North Carolina is one of 14 states that doesn't recognize the death of a fetus as a separate crime, although state law does enhance the felony charge against an assailant if a crime against a pregnant woman – including domestic violence – leads to a miscarriage or stillbirth.

Nancy Burdette was so touched by Nielsen's case that she started an online petition to change the state law and make killing a pregnant woman a case of double murder. More than 2,000 people have already put their names behind the effort.

"It has really just taken off and taken on a life of its own," Burdette said. "If you have two victims, you have two crimes."

Past attempts to change the law have failed, partly because recognizing unborn life that way is likely to become entangled in the abortion debate.

"Don't cloud the issue with abortion," Blaine said.

"Abortion is the mother's decision. I want this for when this is not the mother's decision," Burdette said.

Various women's advocates and domestic violence groups said they also worry about unintended consequences of a change in the law. They said a pregnant woman could be held responsible if she didn't  protect her fetus from an abuser.

House Bill 263, which would make the death of a fetus a separate crime, didn't make a deadline to be heard by a legislative committee this session, said state Rep. Debra Ross, D-Wake.

State Sen. Neal Hunt, R-Wake, urged people at the vigil to pressure lawmakers to act on the bill.

"The only way we're going to get something like this out of committee is grassroots effort, telephone calls, e-mails to your legislators in your district," said Hunt.

If all parties get together, a study could emerge for the next legislative session, Ross said.