The War over Fetal Rights: The Politics of the Womb Are Becoming Ever More Personal-And Complex. the Peterson Murder Case, Changing State Laws and Startling New Science Are Causing Many Americans to Rethink Long-Held Beliefs

By Rosenberg, Debra | Newsweek, June 9, 2003 | Go to article overview

The War over Fetal Rights: The Politics of the Womb Are Becoming Ever More Personal-And Complex. the Peterson Murder Case, Changing State Laws and Startling New Science Are Causing Many Americans to Rethink Long-Held Beliefs


Rosenberg, Debra, Newsweek


Publisher clarification: 25 June 2003

In our June 9 article "The War Over Fetal Rights" (June 9) a caption accompanying the photo of a 13-week-old fetus stated that from that point on, states could restrict a woman's right to an abortion. We should have said that states can impose restrictions like waiting periods and parental-notification laws before 13 weeks. States may not actually ban abortions until viability, about 24 weeks. _____________________________

Byline: Debra Rosenberg

It was nearly Valentine's day, 1992, when Tracy Marciniak's estranged husband, Glenndale Black, showed up at her Wisconsin apartment. A 28-year-old mother of two, Marciniak was expecting another baby in just five days. But the night was hardly romantic. Within hours, the two argued and Black punched her in the stomach. "It felt like it had gone all the way through me," says Marciniak, now 39. The baby, whom she'd already named Zachariah, had seemed fine on a prenatal visit just the day before, she says. But when she arrived at the hospital that night, doctors couldn't find his heartbeat. Marciniak pulled through, but the baby did not.

Because Zachariah was not considered a "born person," prosecutors could not charge Black with homicide. They attempted to try him under an old state law banning illegal abortion, but Black's lawyer argued that the baby would have been stillborn anyway. In the end, a jury convicted Black of reckless injury and sentenced him to 12 years in prison. Though Marciniak has long supported abortion rights, she became furious when she discovered that the law didn't protect her unborn son--and that women's groups wouldn't back her quest for a state law punishing his killer. Now she is allied with the National Right to Life, appearing in an ad for the federal Unborn Victims of Violence Act. "There were two victims," Marciniak says. "He got away with murder."

Halfway across the country, in Connecticut, Pieter and Monica Coenraads want to defend their child, too. But as observant Roman Catholics, they've had to confront a question that strikes at the core of their religious and moral beliefs: Monica, 40, is so opposed to abortion she decided to skip amniocentesis in all three of her pregnancies, even though such testing is standard in older mothers. Whatever the test results, Monica knew she would never choose to terminate a pregnancy. Their first daughter, Chelsea, was born apparently healthy, but at the age of 2 she was diagnosed with Rett syndrome, a debilitating neurological disorder (which would not have been picked up by the amnio in any case). Now 6, Chelsea thinks clearly but cannot feed herself, walk without assistance or speak.

The Coenraadses believe that the only hope for their daughter and for the estimated 15,000 children like her is embryonic stem-cell research--which requires destroying human embryos. "My conscience tells me that for me personally having an abortion would not be the right thing to do. That same conscience tells me that stem-cell research is needed," says Monica, who now helps run the Rett Syndrome Research Foundation from her dining room.

The politics of the womb have never been more personal--or more complicated. When abortion foes are willing to destroy embryos for lifesaving medical research and abortion-rights supporters are willing to define a fetus as a murder victim, the black-and-white rhetoric of the 1970s abortion wars no longer applies. People on all sides of the debate are confronting long-held beliefs, often sending their most private emotions on a collision course with their political principles. With the Laci Peterson case making headlines and Congress poised to tackle both the Unborn Victims of Violence Act and the ban on partial-birth abortion this month, fetal rights have found new prominence on the public stage.

Recent dramatic breakthroughs in fetal and reproductive medicine only add to the confusion. …

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