Rep. Leon Rideout’s Facebook page was recently full of pictures of a beautiful newborn. He and his wife are proud grandparents once again. With the blessed event coming only a few days before the House hearing on this year’s Griffin’s Law, a fetal homicide bill, I was sure that the extended family would be too happily distracted to come to Concord. That would have been understandable.
I was wrong. When the Criminal Justice committee called the hearing to order on HB 560, Rep. Rideout and his wife Cora were there. Their daughter Ashlyn, Griffin’s mother, was there with Daniel, Griffin’s father. In the midst of celebrating the birth of one grandchild, the Rideouts still wanted to honor the memory of another.
A car crash left Griffin’s pregnant mother badly injured; Griffin was then delivered prematurely and died from injuries sustained in the wreck. No charge against the offending driver was possible regarding Griffin’s death. It’s sickening how many families have sustained such losses, only to discover that the babies aren’t considered victims under New Hampshire law.
Once again, as he did last year, Rep. Rideout asked the committee to move New Hampshire in line with the more than three dozen other states with fetal homicide laws. He modified the language of this year’s bill to address the concerns of those who thought the bill would interfere with assisted reproduction or (God forbid) abortion. Those concerns were unfounded in the first place, since the bill would not have applied to any pregnancy termination requested by the mother. Nevertheless, the many co-sponsors of this year’s bill were willing to make accommodations to put to rest the nonsense that this bill is about abortion or about interfering with infertility treatments.
Rep. Kathy Souza was emphatic about that when a committee member bluntly asked how the bill would affect abortion. She had to say it twice to him: “This is not about abortion in any way. This is for a child that is wanted and is taken by the act of another. Fetal homicide [legislation] is a matter of justice.”
Rep. Rideout picked up that theme. “The intent is so mothers and families of these unborn children can receive justice.” He reminded the committee members that the state Supreme Court suggested in 2009 – six years ago now – that the legislature re-visit the homicide statutes to address the violent deaths of wanted preborn children caused by bad actions of a third party. He cited not only his own family’s loss, but also the 2006 death of Dominick Emmons, in whose memory fetal homicide legislation was introduced in 2012.
Rideout noted that the principle currently used to determine if a child like Griffin is a crime victim is something called the born-alive rule. “The born-alive rule is rooted in the 1400s,” added Rideout. “It’s incomprehensible that the state of New Hampshire, with all the advances in society and within the medical field, is still relying on a rule from the 1400s. While New Hampshire’s homicide laws are stuck in the 1400s … 38 other states have come to the realization they needed to update their statutes. Some of these states have had fetal homicide laws since 1970, so we’re not blazing new ground here.”
The ACLU was there to call the bill “unnecessary” and to warn darkly of unintended consequences. A representative of NARAL-NH, who apparently hadn’t read the bill before she testified, also opposed the bill. She clung stubbornly to the notion that a law to prosecute reckless drivers and abusive partners was really an underhanded scheme to make abortion illegal.
A physician who had arrived at the hearing with the same misapprehensions, and who intended to testify against the bill, listened carefully to Reps. Souza and Rideout. He then had the integrity and intellectual honesty to surprise the committee when he was called. Dr. Barry Smith told the assembled representatives that he had thought the bill would interfere with abortion rights, but after hearing from the sponsors, he was satisfied that Griffin’s Law is not an abortion bill, and he therefore he was withdrawing his opposition to it.
I’ve attended hearings for more than twenty years, and never before have I heard a speaker on a bill announce a same-day change of heart.
The ACLU representative said that the group would not be opposed to “enhanced penalties” for crimes against a woman resulting in the death of her preborn child. That was the tactic used by last year’s opponents of Griffin’s Law, who worked to amend the fetal homicide bill into a be-nice-to-pregnant-ladies bill. It was a poison pill that assured the bill’s failure. Rep. Rideout crisply dismissed the ACLU suggestion. “The ACLU is trying to muddy the waters, sowing fear. They’re trying to deflect and confuse people.”
Another fetal homicide bill will be heard in the Senate in a few days. The Senate bill would come into play much later in pregnancy. Rep. Rideout was not distracted by that as he made the case for his own bill, for Griffin.
“Danny and Ashlyn were and continue to be a pillar of strength during this ordeal,” he continued. “Faced with an unspeakable loss and daily challenges, they forged ahead looking at the blessings in life, the fact that Ashlyn survived, and Grady, my 3-year-old grandson, only suffered minor injuries. But the one thing they and the rest of the family – Griffin’s cousins, parents, uncles, grandparents, great-grandparents – cannot get is justice for Griffin’s death and the hole that is left in the family’s daily life.”
He reminded the committee that his grandson would not have been the only one affected had a New Hampshire fetal homicide bill been in place already. He read aloud a list of the names of children whose deaths counted for nothing under current law. A lot of families are reflected in those names.
The opponents of Griffin’s Law were greatly outnumbered by supporters at the recent hearing. Several co-sponsors spoke, as did representatives of advocacy groups who know a fetal homicide law is overdue. None spoke as simply and directly as Virginia Cloutier. Not a legislator, not a lobbyist, she made her point in just a few words: “I don’t know if I’ll ever live long enough to understand why New Hampshire doesn’t have a fetal homicide law.”