Pro-Lifers Press Case Against Calif. Law They Claim ‘Decriminalizes Infanticide’

Critics say Bill A.B. 2223 could weaken protections for newborn infants, leaving some more vulnerable to neglect, abuse and abandonment.

The California Capitol is where California Assembly Member Buffy Wicks, D-Oakland, introduced A.B. 2223, which pro-life groups say would ‘decriminalize infanticide.’
The California Capitol is where California Assembly Member Buffy Wicks, D-Oakland, introduced A.B. 2223, which pro-life groups say would ‘decriminalize infanticide.’ (photo: Willem van Bergen / (CC BY-SA 2.0))

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Hundreds of pro-life activists and Christian church groups in California swarmed the statehouse in Sacramento April 19, waiting to register their opposition to proposed legislation they claim would “decriminalize infanticide.”

The tense, hour-long hearing on the controversial bill was dominated by testimony warning that the legislation could weaken protections for newborn infants, leaving some more vulnerable to neglect, abuse and abandonment.

“We are thrilled to see Californians all over the state traveling hundreds of miles to tell legislators decriminalizing infanticide is barbaric and indefensible,” Jonathan Keller, president of the California Family Council, said in an April 18 statement marking the campaign to stop the bill.

“A political culture that justifies killing millions of children in the womb is now declaring open season on unwanted newborns.”

California Assembly Member Buffy Wicks, D-Oakland, the author of A.B. 2223, has challenged pro-life attacks on her bill. Still, she noted that its original language had been amended to clarify its intent and address claims that had gone viral on social media.

“Anti-abortion activists are peddling an absurd and disingenuous argument that this bill is about killing newborns, when ironically, the part of the bill they’re pointing to is about protecting and supporting parents experiencing the grief of pregnancy loss,” said Wicks in a statement released this week, as lawmakers at the California Capitol braced for the surge of pro-life activists. Media fact-checkers cited Wicks’ comments as they ruled pro-life claims to be “false.” 

But Kathleen Domingo, the executive director of the California Catholic Conference, told the Register that the conference would still oppose the bill until its concerns were addressed.

“We truly believe that Assembly Member Wicks does not intend to have this law open the door to infanticide,” said Domingo. “At the same time, we have offered her numerous options for language changes, and she remains convinced that the language in the amended bill is sufficient to close the door on infanticide.”

The controversial bill marks a new inflection point in the nation’s decades-long battle over legal abortion, as activists await the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision this term in a closely watched case out of Mississippi that will likely approve red-state laws sharply restricting the procedure or even overturn Roe v. Wade. At present, lawmakers on both sides of the partisan divide are weighing further legislation and fine-tuning their messaging for the midterm elections.

“Many far-left liberals will say ‘abortion’ every time they talk about the issue, while some Democrats who will face competitive races in 2022 and 2024 – including the president – have rarely used it, relying instead on broader terms such as ‘reproductive freedom’ and ‘a constitutional right,’” The Washington Post’s Caroline Kitchener reported in April.

But if some Democrat lawmakers are comfortable using the word, “abortion,” they shy away from pro-life efforts to label some abortion-related bills, like Wicks’ legislation, in darker, more distrubing terms.


‘Perinatal Death’

At issue is one part of the California assembly member’s bill,  A.B. 2223, Section 7a, which reads: “Notwithstanding any other law, a person shall not be subject to civil or criminal liability or penalty, or otherwise deprived of their rights, based on their actions or omissions with respect to their pregnancy or actual, potential, or alleged pregnancy outcome, including miscarriage, stillbirth, or abortion, or perinatal death.”

The bill does not define “perinatal death.” But in response to objections raised by the California Catholic Conference and other groups, Wicks amended the bill to read, “perinatal death due to a pregnancy-related cause,” language pro-lifers say is too vague.

The California Welfare & Institutions Code defines perinatal as “the period from the establishment of pregnancy to one month following delivery.”

Wicks introduced A.B. 2223 following high-profile media coverage of two criminal cases that involved women using methamphetamine during pregnancy and then delivered stillborn infants. The murder charge against one woman, Chelsea Becker, was later dismissed, while Adora Perez’s 11-year prison term for involuntary manslaughter was overturned in March. 

“Wicks is trying to carve out this space where women should not be held accountable for any action” that involves the “pregnancy-related” death of their child, said Domingo. 

“‘Perinatal death’ was reportedly included in the bill to protect a woman in cases where,” for example, “she might have been told to be on bed rest and maybe she couldn’t take time off from work” and then the baby dies after birth. 

But A.B. 2223, which is expected to be approved by the California Legislature’s Democratic supermajority, and signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom, is also designed to shield women and anyone else who assists them from criminal and civil liability in the event of a self-induced or criminal abortion. And that helps explain why Wicks’ bill earned critical support from the newly constituted California Future of Abortion Council, an organization led by Planned Parenthood and other powerful industry lobbyists and activists who shape legislation in Sacramento.

The council has teamed up with Gov. Newsom to generate legislation that will “protect, strengthen and expand” access to abortion in the Golden State as GOP-led states ramp up restrictions on the procedure.

Other proposed bills are designed to turn California into an abortion hub. 

One bill would use taxpayer funds to expand the pool of abortion providers by offering scholarships for health care workers who agree to be trained and perform the procedure.

Another would provide free or low-cost abortions for the needy and defray the burden of travel, hotel and daycare costs for out-of-state women who want to end their pregnancies. 

Asked to explain why the Future of Abortion Council endorsed A.B. 2223, Domingo noted that abortion-rights activists sought to shield “women who have self-induced abortions.” 

“They don’t want women to be charged for any pregnancy-related outcome whatsoever: no investigation and no autopsy, unless it’s a third-party assault situation,” she said.


‘A Restorative-Justice Approach’

Domingo explained that California already provides a “safe haven” for women who give birth, find they cannot take care of their child, and surrender the infant to be cared for by others. And she made clear that the Church has stood with pregnant women facing desperate circumstances. 

“We are not interested in charging women criminally for abortion. We understand they need healing and a restorative-justice approach,” she said. 

“But we do want to protect infants and make sure they are not abused, neglected or abandoned.”

Susan Arnall, vice president for legal affairs at the Right to Life League of Southern California, said it was important to understand that the bill does more than protect women from being criminally charged for their infant’s accidental death. 

“It bars a coroner’s inquiry into the cause of a perinatal death, which is what is necessary to establish homicide,” Arnall told the Register. Likewise, the bill “intimidates using a threat of civil action against any private party who reports a perinatal death.” 

California legislators and legal experts told media fact-checkers that Wicks’ bill does not dislodge state law criminalizing infanticide  and that the California Penal Code still defined murder as the “unlawful killing of a human being, or a fetus, with malice aforethought.” But if there is no coroner inquiry and whistleblowers could face financial penalties, Arnell fears that legal protections would be seriously weakened.

She suggested abortion industry lobbyists could have a specific reason for endorsing A.B. 2223. 

“We believe it is targeting the late-term abortions that will be increasing because of the rise in chemical abortions,” she said. 

Chemical or medical abortions involve the use of two drugs, Mifepristone and Misoprostol, which have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration during the first 10-11 weeks of pregnancy, though it is used off label after that point. Arnell worries that the expansion of telemedicine makes it less likely that women will receive ultrasound confirmation of their unborn child’s gestational age, and this shift that could lead to an increased incidence of late-term abortions and complications with chemical abortions. 

In February, the Guttmacher Institute reported that chemical abortions account for more than half of all pregnancy terminations in the United States. But while Guttmacher supported chemical abortion as a “game changer,” it acknowledged problems with the data tracking failed abortions and serious complications associated with the practice.

California is not the only state weighing legislation that weakens protections for newborns. This term, Maryland lawmakers are reviewing a bill with similar language, while the Old Line State’s General Assembly just overrode Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto to secure legislation that allows non-physicians, such as nurse midwives and nurse practitioners, to perform abortions, orders insurance providers to cover the full cost of abortions,  and directs the state to spend millions of taxpayer dollars on abortion-procedure training.

Bioethicist Wesley Smith has condemned  the new bill now before the Maryland Legislature that he says “effectively decriminalizes death by neglect for the first 28 days of life without regard to abortion.” 


‘Permitting Active Infanticide’

“Based on the current advocacy trajectory, such proposals will eventually extend to permitting active infanticide, which is already promoted as legitimate morally by many in mainstream bioethics, and which currently is permitted in the Netherlands upon terminally ill babies and those born with serious disabilities,” Smith charged in a March 5 column for National Review.

Pope Francis and other Church leaders have long registered their alarm at the growing assault on the inalienable dignity of all human life in a “throwaway” society. And Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, director of education for the National Catholic Bioethics Center, told the Register there were other reasons for Americans to pause and evaluate the disturbing message that California’s A.B. 2223 would send amid a national drug-addiction crisis that has forced authorities to place tens of thousands of at-risk children and infants into foster care. 

Father Pacholczyk said he shared Assembly Member Wicks’ concern about charging mothers battling drug addiction and emphasized the crucial role of drug-rehabilitation programs that help women and men return to a clean and sober life. However, he strongly challenged efforts to downplay or dismiss their responsibilities as parents. 

“It is a serious concern whenever a woman’s drug habit results in harm or death to her own offspring, whether born or unborn, and steps need to be taken to help such struggling mothers to understand the gravity of their own situation and improve their circumstances in earnest,” he said. “Women with such addictions require committed assistance, not some kind of ‘legal free pass’ following a miscarriage so they can return to their drug habit and their former way of life.”

He concluded, “Society and the legal system have a responsibility to do better by them.”

This story was updated April 25.