This strange and awful story out of Tampa, Fla., about a man who tricked a woman into aborting her pregnancy is another instance of the politicization of women’s reproductive health care confusing what should be straightforward issues. John Andrew Welden is accused of slipping Cytotec, an ulcer medication that can induce labor, to his then-girlfriend Remee Jo Lee. He allegedly told her the pills were antibiotics. Her pregnancy started to fail and she was forced to get a D&C to remove the embryo. Considering that Welden is accused of drugging a woman against her will and causing injuries she needed medical attention for, it seems the appropriate charges would be centered around assault, poisoning, and domestic violence.
Instead, however, federal authorities are charging Welden with product tampering and first-degree murder for the death of the embryo. Lee is the victim of a horrible crime, but the prosecutors will instead focus on an embryo the size of a pencil eraser. Thirty-eight states have laws on the books against fetal homicide. Prosecutors in Ohio are thinking of charging Cleveland kidnapper Ariel Castro with the crime so he is eligible for the death penalty. The logic in both Castro’s case and Welden’s is that stiffer penalties are available when the crime is murder. But the tradeoff for women is not worth it.
Ultimately the charge doesn’t serve women well, because it creates an implied link between legal abortion and murder. During a hearing where Lee requested a restraining order against Welden, Welden’s attorney unsuccessfully attempted to highlight the suit’s inconsistencies:
Welden was at the hearing, along with his attorney, David Weisbrod, who asked Lee if she’d ever had an abortion.
“I don’t see how that pertains to this matter,” she said. “My past has nothing to do with what John Welden did to me.”
Judge Lefler agreed that a prior abortion was irrelevant, but other judges might not.
A focus on the embryo obscures what this case is really about, which is domestic violence. Lee herself is suing Welden for battery, a much easier case to make than murder. Domestic violence is generally rooted in the desire to control the victim, and nothing gives you more control than forcibly taking over a pregnancy that’s happening in her body.