Double Murder

Abortion rights and the Laci Peterson case


"I'd like to see them string [Scott Peterson] up," Morris County, New Jersey, NOW President Mavra Stark told her county's local paper, "any way they can."

A lot of people are feeling that kind of anger following the sad and macabre news that the bodies of Laci Peterson and her infant son (apparently unborn until after her death) had washed up miles from where her husband Scott had taken a fishing trip on the day she "disappeared." That Peterson was 30 miles from the Mexican border with $10,000, bleached hair, and a new goatee when police arrested him Friday hasn't helped people look beyond the mounting circumstantial evidence. He has been charged with a double homicide murder, and the district attorney is expected to seek the death penalty.

But the NOW chapter president also voiced another, less-discussed sentiment. "There's something about this that bothers me a little bit," Stark said. "Was it born, or was it unborn? If it was unborn, then I can't see charging (Peterson) with a double-murder." She's concerned that calling the death of an unborn child a murder could assist those who seek to establish the personhood and rights of a fetus not just at eight months but much younger.

My guess is that this issue is somewhere on the minds of many abortion rights activists, whether or not they're completely sure of their position. Spreading the semantics of "partial birth abortion" has been one of abortion foes' few political/P.R. victories in recent years, leading some to worry about a slow encroachment on reproductive rights. Other abortion rights defenders, even ardent ones, get squeamish when asked to defend third-trimester abortions or even to tease out the thorny questions of personhood at eight months in the womb.

But I'd also guess that Stark's comment will be the last we'll hear on the issue from her or from any NOW representative. It doesn't take a gifted P.R. flack to see that using the Peterson case to make even a slippery slope argument about fetus rights would be politically tantamount to taking a long walk off a short pier (into a fast-moving river in Alaska). There's already a despised villain in this story, and it's not someone who's preoccupied with the sanctity of life.