Trigger Warning for discussions of intimate partner violence and attempted forced abortion.
On October 6, Dominic Holt-Reid allegedly pulled a gun on his pregnant girlfriend Yolanda Burgess and forced her against her will to drive to an abortion clinic for a scheduled abortion she no longer wanted to have. Thankfully, she was able to slip a note to a worker at the clinic, who called the police, and Holt-Reid was therefore not successful in forcing her to have an abortion. He was, however, arrested.
Last week, he was charged with attempted murder. But not against Yolanda Burgess, as you might expect. He’s been charged with attempted murder of her fetus.
The facts of the case: A man is accused of trying to force his pregnant girlfriend at gunpoint to get an abortion. The question: Can he be charged with attempted murder of her unborn child?
In what may be a precedent-setting case, prosecutors have leveled such a charge against Dominic Holt-Reid under a 1996 Ohio fetal homicide law that says a person can be found guilty of murder for causing the unlawful termination of a pregnancy.
Police say Holt-Reid, 27, pulled a gun Oct. 6 on his three-months-pregnant girlfriend, Yolanda Burgess, and forced her to drive to an abortion clinic. Burgess, 26, did not go through with the procedure; she managed to slip a note to a clinic employee, who called police.
Ohio’s law and ones similar to it in dozens of other states have been routinely used to win convictions in auto accidents in which a pregnant woman died, and instances in which a mother-to-be was attacked physically.
Almost all of the articles discussing this case focus on the question of whether or not the prosecution is likely to succeed. But while busy discussing whether or not the charges are practical, few are asking whether or not they’re ethical.
According to the AP, the law in question was passed after campaigning by a man whose pregnant wife was killed during a car crash. Supporters of the law claimed that they were not attempting to impact laws on abortion, despite the fact that protection of fetuses under criminal statutes implies personhood.
This is an ongoing issue throughout the United States. Anti-choice organizers keep working to pass “fetal personhood” laws and amendments in various states, which would grant civil rights and protections to fetuses. Even at the same time as they publicly claim such laws would not impact abortion rights, they are clearly designed to do precisely that. And even if such laws failed to overturn the right to an abortion in court, they do serve to reinforce in the public consciousness the idea that fetuses are independent people separate from those gestating them, who deserve rights of their own. Such also laws often pit the rights of pregnant women and people of other genders against those of the fetuses they are carrying, reducing autonomy and attempting to construct pregnancy as some sort of sacrificial prison.
At the same time, bereaved families who have lost pregnancies in violent crimes often campaign for laws recognizing fetuses as unique victims of violence, as a form of justice for their loss. Unfortunately, their well-intentioned efforts often get co-opted by anti-choice activists, or inadvertently serve to assist them.
For this second group, I have nothing but compassion. Losing a wanted pregnancy through violence is undoubtedly a traumatic event, and that loss should be treated with the gravity that it deserves. I do understand that many people view their wanted fetuses as babies, as people, and I respect that. But the fact remains that one cannot end a pregnancy through violence without committing an act of violence against the pregnant person. It’s physically impossible. And as women make up a vast majority of those who are pregnant, these laws end up only serving to obscure the violence that is committed against women. And when pregnant women are at significantly higher risk of domestic violence and even murder, that erasure becomes an enormous problem.
It is this issue that I actually care about even more than the issue of whether or not the fetus’ legal protection from violence bestows personhood upon it. Abortion rights are highly precarious in the U.S., it’s true. But so is women’s right to not be assaulted. So is the right of women to be recognized as full human beings that have autonomy, deserve safety from violence, and exist independently from their reproductive capacity.
These rights, and the lack of them, are of course all inextricably linked. One, after all, cannot be seen as existing independently as a full person regardless of the contents of one’s womb without having the right to secure a safe and legal abortion. But looking at this case, what disturbs me is not how it could potentially impact abortion rights some day down the road. What disturbs me is the fact that I had to look through at least half a dozen articles about charges of attempted murder against a fetus just to find what exactly Holt-Reid was charged with, if anything, for his act of violence against the woman carrying that fetus, Yolanda Burgess. The Sydney Morning Herald finally provided the details:
Dominic L. Holt-Reid, 28, was arrested Oct. 6 as he waited for his girlfriend in the clinic’s parking lot. At the time, Columbus police charged him with kidnapping and carrying a concealed weapon. A six-count Franklin County grand jury indictment returned Friday added other kidnapping and weapons counts, along with the attempted murder charge.
Firstly, the fact that this information was not readily available shows how thoroughly erased the woman has become in this story. It’s not interesting, what he did to her. It’s not interesting, what the government sees as his crimes against her person. It’s just not interesting that a pregnant woman was assaulted. After all, that happens all the time. How does this affect lawyers?
Secondly, the fact that by far the most serious charge that Holt-Reid faces is for the crime against a fetus that had been gestating for less than 3 months, as opposed to the full grown, living, breathing woman he held at gunpoint, is shockingly misogynistic. Holt-Reid allegedly kidnapped Burgess, threatened her with death — after all, what is forcing a person to do anything at gunpoint if not a threat on their life? — and attempted to make her forcibly undergo an unwanted, invasive surgical procedure, that would have violated her inalienable right to make her own reproductive decisions, no less. That is what he did. He didn’t attempt to “murder” a fetus. He attempted to force a woman to have her uterus surgically emptied against her will, with the implied threat that he would kill her if she did not. He tried to make her end a pregnancy that she did not want to end. He terrified her, assaulted her, kidnapped her, and in addition to his gun attempted to use her own body as a weapon against her.
But if Holt-Reid were to be convicted of all of the charges laid against him, who would that “justice” be for? Who would have their rights upheld by that victory? Who would the media be discussing as inexorably having the right to be free from violence?
As is much too commonly the case, it wouldn’t be the woman.