Colorado has no fetal homicide law; Shanann Watts case reignites debate

DENVER -- After a Frederick man was arrested on murder charges after the disappearance of his pregnant wife and two daughters, a debate has reignited about Colorado's laws regarding the killing of a fetus.

Christopher Watts was arrested on Wednesday night. The Colorado Bureau of Investigation said the body that is believed to be that of his wife, 34-year-old Shanann Watts, was found on the property owned by Anadarko Petroleum, where Watts worked.

The bodies of their daughters, 4-year-old Bella and 3-year-old Celeste "Cece," are believed to have been recovered.

Watts faces three counts of first-degree murder and three charges of tampering with physical evidence. He is not charged for the death of the unborn child.

However, Colorado has laws that increase penalties for those who commit crimes against pregnant women.

Social media has flared with people discussing Colorado's lack of a fetal homicide law.

A person can only be charged in the death of a fetus if it can be proven the baby would have survived outside the womb, according to prosecutors in the 2015 stabbing of a Longmont woman that led to the death of her unborn child.

In that case, Dynel Lane was sentenced to 100 years in prison for attacking the pregnant woman, then cutting her baby from the womb.

After the stabbing, some lawmakers unsuccessfully tried to change the laws.

Senate Bill 268 would have made the killing of a fetus a homicide in certain cases.

"For the purposes of homicide and assault offenses, 'person' means 'a human being and includes an unborn child at every stage of gestation from conception until live birth,'" it stated, according to nonprofit group Rewire.News.

The failed bill's language also read: "For purposes of a prosecution of a homicide or assault offense, the bill would not apply to: (1) an act committed by the mother of her “unborn child”; (2) a medical procedure performed by a physician or other licensed medical professional at the request of a mother of her “unborn child” or the mother’s legal guardian; or (3) the lawful dispensation or administration of lawfully prescribed medication."

While the bill was supported by many Republicans, Democrats feared it could threaten abortion rights. At the time, Planned Parenthood said the bill was "dangerous for Colorado women."

"We are concerned that any law creating fetal 'personhood' will impact access to abortion services in Colorado, as well as open a door to allowing prosecution of pregnant women," then-Planned Parenthood Votes Colorado Vice President of Public Affairs Cathy Alderman said in a statement. "The backers of SB15-268, by insisting that legislation be considered which establishes 'fetal personhood,' are once again ignoring the values and will of Colorado voters. ... Colorado does not need to follow the dangerous road of other states’ who are allowing politics and similar tragedies, to criminalize women and doctors."

Colorado voters turned down a fetal homicide law in 2014 and earlier efforts failed in the state Legislature.

On Friday, Karen Middleton, the executive director of NARAL (National Abortion Rights Action League) Pro-Choice Colorado, sent the following statement through a spokesperson:

"Colorado already has a very strong, carefully balanced Crimes Against Pregnant Women law that has been a model nationally. Our concern is compounding the tragedy of this case by prosecuting and criminalizing pregnant women by putting fetal personhood into law, as has happened in other states."

According to the Durango Herald, at least 37 states have fetal homicide laws.

AlertMe