ANNAPOLIS — For the second consecutive legislative session following the killing of a pregnant Howard County teacher, a Carroll County lawmaker is pushing for legislation that would enable prosecutors to seek convictions for the murders of the mother and fetus.
State Sen. Justin Ready, R-District 5, filed the bill, known as Laura and Reid’s Law, in response to the murder of Laura Wallen, who was four months pregnant when she was killed in September 2017. Her boyfriend was charged in the killing, but died in his jail cell the day his trial was scheduled to begin in Montgomery County Circuit Court.
“There were two heartbeats that ended when our daughter” was killed, Laura’s father Mark Wallen said Thursday at a news conference introducing the legislation. “Laura Wallen was murdered because she was pregnant.”
Because of Maryland’s existing law, prosecutors in the case could not charge Laura’s boyfriend with the killing of the fetus, who she had planned to name Reid.
Ready and Del. Trent Kittleman, R-District 9A, cross-filed bills in the Maryland Senate and House of Delegates that would change that. The Republican lawmakers introduced similar legislation last year, which failed to pass the Democrat-controlled legislature.
This year, Ready said they’ve refined the bill so as to avoid concerns of jeopardizing a woman’s right to choose. NARAL-Pro Choice Maryland, an abortion rights advocacy organization, opposes the legislation.
“We believe that this bill establishes that an eight-week fetus is a person,” said Diana Philip, the executive director of NARAL-Pro Choice Maryland. “It threatens the personhood of any living individual capable of child bearing.”
Ready, who is pro-life, said the legislation “was narrowly written to apply to the circumstances like the murder of Laura and Reid Wallen,” and would not impact a woman’s right to choose in Maryland; rather it would protect women that choose to keep their child.
“This bill has nothing to do with abortion,” Kittleman added.
“It was inspired by this awful case, but … pregnant women are uniquely vulnerable,” Ready said. “In our country and in Maryland, violence against pregnant women is, I think, much higher than people like to believe.”
Homicide was the leading cause of death among pregnant and postpartum women in Maryland between 1993 and 2008, according to a Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene report on intimate partner violence. A different study by the state’s health department found that there were 118 pregnancy‐associated homicides between 1993 and 2010.
As of last November, more than 30 states had laws that apply to situations like the Wallens’, Ready said, adding that his legislation closely resembles existing law in California.
“The fact that other states have moved forward and Maryland takes so much pride in being progressive, this is one area that it’s time for Maryland to step up with the rest of the states and protect Maryland’s pregnant women,” said state Sen. Mary Beth Carozza, a Worcester County Republican and co-sponsor of Ready’s bill.
Current law, according to the bill’s fiscal and policy note, allows a person to be prosecuted for murder or manslaughter of a fetus if the fetus is deemed “viable” — or has a reasonable chance of surviving outside the womb — by presiding medical professionals.
The Carroll lawmaker’s legislation defines a fetus as unborn human offspring “from the end of the eighth week after fertilization until birth,” according to the policy note.
NARAL-Pro Choice Maryland thinks this legislation could open the door to pregnant women being charged and convicted of a host of crimes, Philip told the Times. “If there’s a loss of pregnancy, could they arrest somebody?”
Philip added that her organization recognizes that pregnancy is a trigger for domestic violence and supports efforts to curb it. This bill, she said, will not deter people from committing domestic violence against pregnant individuals.
Ready contends this bill narrowly targets premeditated murder of pregnant women — cases where the defendant knows the individual is pregnant and targets her.
To prosecute a person for the murder or manslaughter of a fetus, the policy note for Ready’s bill details, the accused “must have known or reasonably should have known that the mother of the fetus was pregnant at the time of the offense.”
Though the legislation won’t help their situation, Wallen said, it could help prevent future violence against pregnant women.
“It would certainly be something Laura would’ve supported wholeheartedly,” he said.