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Judge: abortion laws protect girl who sought pregnancy-ending beating

Published October 12, 2009 7:30 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A judge has released a 17-year-old Vernal girl from jail after ruling she did not commit a crime when she allegedly paid a man to beat her in an attempt to end her late-term pregnancy.

The release, which came after the girl's mother obtained a second opinion on her daughter's no contest plea, has incensed some lawmakers who argue the ruling skirts laws governing legal abortions in Utah.

"The judge is absolutely stretching," said Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman. "There's no way the judge believes the Utah Legislature left open this loophole. I guarantee it will be closed this next session."

Eighth District Juvenile Court Judge Larry Steele sided with attorney Rich King, who argued under Utah law and around the country women are not held criminally liable for soliciting an abortion.

"Women may use any procedure or method of terminating pregnancy, by abortion or by miscarriage, and they cannot be charged with a crime," King said.

Judge Steele called the girl's actions to end her seven-month pregnancy "shocking and crude" in a four-page ruling Thursday, but said her actions "fit the definition for an abortion. As such, she cannot be held criminally liable for her actions pursuant to the Utah abortion statutes."

Prosecutors had argued the girl's failed attempt was not a legal abortion, which in Utah can only be performed before the fetus is able to survive outside the womb by a physician licensed to perform abortions in a medical facility. But Steele said a law protecting women who seek abortions from prosecution does not include the word "medical" when referring to procedures used to abort a fetus.

"The Legislature clearly understood the difference and intended the difference," Steele wrote.

Under the counsel of a public defender, the girl originally had entered a no-contest plea to a second-degree felony charge of soliciting murder and was sentenced to secure confinement in the custody of Utah Juvenile Justice Services until she is 21. She withdrew her plea after her mother sought a second opinion from King.

Assistant Attorney General Chris Ballard, who represented the state in a Utah Supreme Court case that upheld a law making the murder of a fetus at any stage of its development a crime while exempting abortions, said Steele may have reached a different result "had the definition been more specific."

Wimmer and Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, said they will work to tighten legal definitions next session. Ray, who sponsored a bill last year that created a second-degree felony charge for performing an illegal abortion, called the girl's actions "brutal and monstrous."

"She hired someone so her fetus would die," Ray said. "The law let her slip through the cracks and let her go. We need to change wording in the law."

Yet even Ray's bill, which became law this year, has a provision preventing women from being charged with murder for soliciting an abortion.

According to charging documents, 21-year-old Aaron Harrison brought the girl to his home near 1900 East and 2500 South in Naples around midnight on May 20 after she asked him to help her terminate the pregnancy. The girl's boyfriend had threatened to leave her if she did not get an abortion, the documents say.

Harrison, an acquaintance of the girl, allegedly struck and bit her, leaving bruises on her belly and a bite mark on her neck. The girl paid $150 for the beating, according to charging documents.

The girl and the man later allegedly confessed their scheme to police; the fetus survived the attack and the girl was induced in mid-August a few days before her due date.

Uintah County prosecutors were not available for immediate comment on Steele's ruling Monday evening.

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Reporter Erin Alberty contributed to this report.

What's next

The girl's attorney has filed a motion to dismiss the charges against her. Her child remains in state custody and is living with foster parents.

The girl is fighting for custody of the child; her mother plans to seek custody if her daughter is unsuccessful.

Children can remain in protective custody regardless of whether a parent faces criminal charges, said Debbie Booth, spokeswoman for the state Department of Child and Family Services.

"Their best interest would be weighed," Booth said. "If they removed the child, it wouldn't necessarily be just because charges had been filed."

The statute at issue

Utah law (76-7-301) defines an abortion as "any and all procedures undertaken to kill a live unborn child and includes all procedures undertaken to produce a miscarriage" and exempts women who seek or obtain abortions from prosecution.