Published December 12, 2006
A precedent-setting package of abortion bills is now before the Michigan Senate, having passed the House in late July. Collectively called the Coercive Abortion Bills, the package is intended to protect women from being forced or intimidated into having abortions.
Because abortion is a flash point, public debate has focused on the Bills’ anti-abortion thrust, with Michigan National Organization for Women squaring off against Right to Life of Michigan. NOW rejects the additional legal obligations imposed upon abortionists including, in some cases, the obligation to postpone an abortion for 24 hours.
Other feminists ask, "if the purpose is to protect women and not restrict abortion, why is there no comparable bill against coercing women into giving birth?"
The bills are being propelled forward largely by the public’s understandable distaste for forced abortion. Recent headlines such as "Teen Force-Fed Turpentine in Abortion Attempt" or "Kidnap tied to forced abortion attempt" horrify both pro-life and pro-choice advocates.
But such acts of coercion are already illegal, and could be strengthened, if need be, by simply hiking penalties. The bills in question would create entirely new law. While the debate surrounding the bills focuses on the impact they would have on women's lives, the new laws would also place the personal choices of men under the purview of courts and extend law into traditionally private areas.
The bills are bad law, a dangerous precedent and an invitation to abuse.
Consider HB 5882 known as the Coercive Abortion Prevention Act. Sec. 15a. (2) makes it illegal to compel a woman to seek an abortion by "an act, attempted act, or threat to act by a person that is conditioned upon the pregnant female disregarding or refusing the person's demand that she seek an abortion." In short, it is illegal to force or pressure a woman into aborting.
The problem arises with the definition of "coercive acts" and "threats." The definitions include filing or an "attempt to file for a divorce," the withdrawal or "attempt to withdraw financial support," and the changing "or attempt to change an existing housing or cohabitation arrangement with the pregnant female."
Threatening to take such actions is also illegal if the threat can be viewed as a pattern; "2 or more statements" establish a pattern.
At one point, in defining a "threat," HB 5882 becomes confusing.
It states, "a threat does not include constitutionally protected speech or any generalized statement regarding a lawful pregnancy option." Yet saying "I want a divorce or to move out unless you abort" would seem to be a constitutionally protected statement of personal intent. Moreover, abortion is a "lawful pregnancy option"; does HB 5882 means that a statement about a legal option becomes itself illegal when it becomes specific rather than general?
Despite the confusion, HB 5882’s thrust is clear. It would be illegal for a man to leave or threaten to leave a pregnant woman unless she aborts. (Legal obligations to pay child or spousal support are entirely separate from an obligation to continue cohabitation.)
Right to Life of Michigan describes the penalties for leaving. "A misdemeanor charge for actions that do not physically threaten a woman, but clearly constitute a coercive element (relationship, financial or housing arrangements) would subject the perpetrator to fines up to $2000…If the pregnant woman is under the age of 18 and the perpetrator of the coercion is the adult father of the unborn child, the punishment would be imprisonment for not more than 1 year or a fine of not more than $5000, or both."
In other words, in the most extreme case, a man could be imprisoned for a year and fined $5,000 for ceasing to cohabit with his pregnant girlfriend.
HB 5882 should appall even zealous pro-lifers.
If a man impregnates a woman, he may be morally obliged to provide support. But even assuming a moral duty, how does that translate into a legal obligation to cohabit?
Moreover, HB 5882 places tremendous power in the hands of women at the expense of men. It is natural to view a man who leaves a pregnant woman as a lout…but there can be valid reasons to do so.
For example, the man may not believe the child is his. HB 5882 specifically applies to "[italic]putative[italic]" fathers that is, presumed fathers. In legal terms, this means "the husband" even though he may not be the biological father.
For example, the couple may have agreed to remain childless or to wait for specific circumstances. Thus the woman’s pregnancy could constitute a deliberate violation of a prior agreement.
Nevertheless, HB 5882 makes it illegal for the man to tell the woman that he intends to commit a legal act (move out) unless she undergoes a legal procedure (an abortion).
The four other bills before the Senate are as follows: H.B. 5883 on sentencing guidelines for the courts; H.B. 5881 on the civil liability a convicted perpetrator owes to his victim; HB 5880 and 5879 on the responsibilities of abortionists to screen for possible coercion and take action if coercion is revealed.
The five bills easily passed through the Michigan House with HB 5882 receiving a vote of 67 to 38.
Perhaps legislators were reluctant to vote against a bill with a title akin to "The Motherhood and Decency Act." If so, the bills should be more accurately renamed to "The Contempt for Male and Constitutional Rights Act."
Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, "Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century" (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.