Sears: Fetal homicide bills won’t be heard

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BENNINGTON -- Bills addressing fetal homicide won’t be considered by the Vermont Senate this year because neither has strong consensus backing within the chamber, according to Bennington County Sen. Dick Sears, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Proponents of adopting a fetal homicide bill in Vermont say they will, however, seek a path through the Vermont House.

The pronouncement Monday by Sears, a Democrat, follows a months-long push by a Bennington woman who lost twin fetuses in an Aug. 10 crash on Route 7. Her effort provoked lawmakers to introduce three bills -- two in the Senate and one in the House -- to address Patricia Blair’s concerns.

Lots of thought

But the Senate bills will not be heard this year, said Sears, who was afforded the final word by Democratic leaders in the Legislature.

"I spent a lot of time in the past few days thinking about this and how to approach it. Each time I tried to find a way to deal with this bill, or bills, each time I came back with the same problem, and that is that I don’t have consensus," Sears said. "These types of bills need consensus to move forward. I have not seen that consensus."

According to police, Patricia Blair’s minivan was struck head-on by Kelly Cook, a 22-year-old Pownal woman. Cook has been charged with felony counts of driving under the influence of drugs and gross negligent vehicle operation resulting in injury. But Cook is not being charged with the deaths of Blair’s 6-month fetuses.

That’s because Vermont does not have a fetal homicide law, unlike 35 other states and the federal government. And legal experts say that under criminal statutes in Vermont, fetuses are not considered people because of precedent set forth in the 1989 Vermont Supreme Court case State vs. Oliver.

After the crash, Blair said she was devastated to learn that Cook would not face charges related to the death of the fetuses. The state forced her to fill out paperwork when the fetuses died, but does not consider them to be people. "The very first question they ask you is the baby’s first, middle and last name," she said. "And yet, they’re not considered children in Vermont."

On Monday, she expressed disappointment, and some anger, that Sears has chosen not to hear the introduced bills in his committee. "I do take it personally. This is very personal for me, and there’s no way for me not to," Blair said. "Vermont just refused to do anything because of the opposition of Planned Parenthood and these other groups.

"I’m actually ashamed of the state, that they could just throw it away," she added.

Sears sponsored one of the Senate bills. His legislation would have boosted penalties for three existing crimes -- aggravated assault, gross negligent vehicle operation and operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol or drugs -- when they are committed against a pregnant woman.

Senate Judiciary Committee member Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, co-sponsored Sears’ bill. He expressed disappointment in Sears’ decision, but acknowledged the bills had little chance of passing.

"I don’t think he could have taken them up and passed them given the rhetoric and climate around it," Mullin said. "It turned into a debate that didn’t have to happen."

Mullin said Sears was likely trying to avoid "a journey that we could never come out on the other side successfully."

"I ... understand Dick’s position because he was being squeezed from both sides," Mullin said.

Blair quickly rejected Sears’ approach because it would not have recognized that her unborn babies were killed during a criminal act.

Instead, Blair supported a bill submitted by Sen. Vince Illuzzi, R-Essex-Orleans, that would allow a fetus to be considered a victim under state statutes for several crimes, including various homicide laws, driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol with death resulting and grossly negligent operation of a motor vehicle with death resulting.

"This one seems to be so much more of a debate for them than it has to be," Blair said. "I’ve been out there in the public and everybody seems to get this. If the people in the Statehouse can’t get this, I really think we need new people in the Statehouse."

Rep. Mary Morrissey, R-Bennington, has submitted a House bill identical to Illuzzi’s. The House version has nearly 60 co-sponsors, including about 15 Democrats.

Morrissey expressed "extreme disappointment" in Sears’ decision Monday. "I have great disappointment. I had obviously hoped that the issue could be looked at as 35 other states have looked at it," Morrissey said. "My heart right now is with the Blair family."

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All three bills have been strongly opposed by Planned Parenthood of Northern New England and the Vermont-ACLU. The two groups are opposed to "fetal personhood," because, they argue, it could undermine abortion rights.

On Monday, Sears acknowledged that he underestimated the passion on both sides of the fetal homicide issue, and it’s relationshipwith abortion rights. "I was maybe a little naive to think that we could do this without touching abortion. There’s a real sincere fearfrom manypro-choice advocates that anything we do, including my bill,would result in a slippery slope thatcould impact people’s right to choose," Sears said.

He also acknowledged that his critics would blame Planned Parenthood and the Vermont-ACLU groups for the decision he reached. "I was urged by ACLU and Planned Parenthood not to do anything and I’ll be accused of caving to them. That’s a little frustrating to me," Sears said. "Quite frankly, there is very little support for the Illuzzi approach. There is some for mine, but not a lot. Anything I say is going to be seen as an excuse by some.

"It’s a no-win situation as far as I can see. Usually, we look for win-win situations where both sides can come out feeling as though they’ve been heard and been accommodated," Sears said.

The issue has had strong advocates, too, including Vermont Right to Life, and Craig Benson, who founded Take it to the People, a religion-based group that opposed same-sex marriage last year.

Benson, in particular, has been "instrumental," Blair said, in getting her message out. He said Monday he has pitched in as an individual and a pastor because "this is a compassion deal.

"Primarily, I gave her some advice. I’ve got a little experience over there and experience with Sen. Sears’ committee. I encouraged her to be persistent and straightforward," he said.

Benson said he also set up a Web site for Blair, which Sears’ said on Monday elevated the rhetoric surrounding the bills.

According to Benson, "the person in the street response is amazingly sympathetic," he said. But lawmakersare afraidto approach the issue in an election year. It will now certainly becomea campaign issue for Sears if he seeks re-election, Benson promised. "He just made it a big campaign issue in his district," Benson said. "Patricia and her supporters will be vocal."

Sears rejected the notion that he chose not to move forward with the bills because it is a controversial subject, however. "I don’t think this Judiciary Committee has ever shied away from any controversial issues," Sears said.

Under his chairmanship, the Senate Judiciary Committee has delved into drunken driving, civil unions, same-sex marriage, DNA testing and implementing a sex offender registry, Sears said.

Nonetheless, Blair said the fetal homicide bills deserve "proper time and respect." It is the committee’s job to craft a bill that does have consensus, she said.

"They couldn’t even do that much," Blair said. "I don’t think every bill that’s ever been passed had full support at first. When our children don’t matter, then I think we need to make a change."

Meanwhile, Illuzzi faulted both sides for creating an environment in which his legislation could not be furthered. "What’s complicated the matter, I think, is the involvement by Planned Parenthood and Vermont Right to Life, even though it’s drafted to keep them out of the debate," Illuzzi said. "I’m not going to criticize Dick Sears for not taking it up because this issue has been hijacked by these two groups."

Illuzzi said he sees it as a law enforcement issue. If Blair had lost her twins on federal property, he said, Cook could be facing charges with the death of the fetuses. "I still think there’s a need for the bill," he said.

Sears, who met with Blair last week, said he doesn’t expect the issue to go away. In fact, he said he would urge her to "absolutely" seek passage of legislation again next legislative session. "What I’m hoping is that some consensus will build around a bill," he said.

"I explained that with issues like this, it often takes years for the Legislature to enact something," Sears said. "Just because something happened, as tragic as it might be, doesn’t necessarily mean that laws are going to change overnight."

Blair said she has no intention of giving up, and has more motivation after an eerily similar crash impacted another family last month. "I am not going anywhere. I feel strongly about this, and I have another mother, I believe, when she’s ready, with me," Blair said.

The second mother, Sarah Cardinal, 26, of Johnson, lost her own twin 8-month-old fetuses in a Jan. 7 car crash in Lamoille County. The crash is still under investigation, according to police, and no criminal charges have been filed.

Blair said she plans to ask Morrissey if the House Judiciary Committee can take action now that the path through the Senate is blocked. "Mary has really taken this up and made it her own fight, too," Blair said. "If Mary feels that we can do that then that’s another direction that we’ll go."

Morrissey said Monday she will inquire with House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morrisville, about that possibility. Smith has previously said any action would begin in the Senate, however, according to Morrissey.

Contact Neal P. Goswami at ngoswami@benningtonbanner.com


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