JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — A Missouri legislator believes state law should be widened to give abortion protesters a defense against crimes they believe are justified "to save human life."
Democratic Rep. Judith O'Connor of Bridgeton represents a district with strong anti-abortion sentiment and she has joined protesters outside an abortion clinic.
She is sponsoring a bill, which, if passed, would allow abortion protesters to justify the committing of misdemeanors at clinics whenever they felt their conduct was "necessary to save human life from an imminent threat."
"These people (abortion protesters) are real careful about not hurting anyone," she said. "They're quiet, peaceful people."
Minor Crimes Involved
According to O'Connor, those protesters who are arrested are charged with minor offenses, such as trespassing or disturbing the peace.
But a key opponent is convinced O'Connor's bill would set a dangerous legal precedent in Missouri and would give abortion foes protection even from serious offenses.
The O'Connor bill would extend the legal "defense of necessity"--often called the "lesser of two evils" defense--to anyone who commits a misdemeanor "with a good faith belief that his conduct is necessary to save human life from an imminent threat."
State law currently permits people to offer the justification defense in cases other than major felonies and murders. O'Connor believes abortion foes should have the same right.
"We ought to treat them the same whether we agree with them or not," she said.
'Sanctity of Human Life'
Under the bill, a judge or jury would determine whether the defense could be used in court. Her bill specifies the "sanctity of human life from fertilization to death" as a value to be protected by the defense.
O'Connor's bill originally extended the defense to all crimes committed by abortion foes, except for the most serious felonies and murder. She revised the bill to cover only misdemeanors after some lawmakers' expressed concern that the first draft would condone violent acts against abortion clinics, their patients and doctors.
Rep. Mark Youngdahl, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee to which O'Connor's bill has been assigned, strongly criticized the original bill for granting the defense to protesters committing major crimes. He isn't convinced the newer version is markedly better.
Youngdahl also questioned whether opposition to abortion is the same type of serious situation normally reserved for the justification defense. The defense originally was used when people were placed in dire circumstances by forces beyond their control, such as shipwrecks or natural disasters.
Use of Defense Limited
Current state law says the defense may be used when people act to "avoid an imminent public or private injury" about to occur through no fault of their own. State law also says the defense may not be used where people are only challenging the "morality and advisability" of a law.
O'Connor's bill is specifically meant to overturn a 1982 decision of the state Appellate Court in St. Louis. The three-judge panel upheld a lower court's ruling that three abortion protesters could not use the defense in their trial for trespassing.
Judge Harold Satz, who wrote the opinion in the 2-1 ruling, said the defense can't be used by people protesting legal activity, noting the U.S. Supreme Court permitted abortions on demand in a landmark 1972 ruling.