LONGMONT, Colo. - The gruesome case of a woman accused of cutting open the belly of a pregnant woman and removing her unborn baby girl is reviving a highly-charged debate in the U.S. over when a fetus can legally be considered a human being.
The abortion debate has hung over the increasing number of states that have made the killing of a fetus a homicide. Those laws have been promoted by opponents of abortion rights and have been adopted by 38 of the 50 U.S. states and the federal government, to the consternation of many abortion-rights supporters.
But Colorado, the state where the crime occurred, twice rejected efforts in the past two years to make the death of a fetus a homicide under state law.
That leaves the fate of Dynel Lane up in the air. Authorities say Lane lured a woman who was nearly eight months pregnant to her home this week with an ad on Craigslist offering to sell baby clothes. Lane allegedly removed the fetus from the woman's body.
Stan Garnett, the district attorney of liberal Boulder County, said during a news conference Thursday that Colorado law makes it challenging to file homicide charges. "Under Colorado law, essentially no murder charges can be brought if the child did not live outside of the mother," Garnett said.
The legal complexity seems unnecessary to some. "It's literally absurd," said Keith Mason, the president of Personhood USA, the anti-abortion rights group that spearheaded the push for Colorado's fetal homicide laws.
Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, said none of the laws can be used against a woman who decides to lawfully terminate her pregnancy. "Some of them have been in existence for 30 years, and they haven't had any impact on legal abortions," he said.
After Democrats rejected a fetal-homicide bill in 2013, state Rep. Mike Foote authored a measure allowing extra felony charges to be filed against anyone who commits a crime that causes the death of a fetus. Foote said that it's impossible for Colorado to implement a fetal homicide law without running the risk of lengthy legal fights over abortion because of the involvement of activists seeking "personhood" status for fetuses.
"The issue we were wrestling with is how you can hold offenders accountable and have some semblance of justice and not interfere with a woman's reproductive rights," said Foote, a Democrat who is also a prosecutor.
Foote and others said the key issues in the current case will be both whether the baby was alive outside the mother and whether the act that led to its death occurred outside her body. During a brief court hearing Thursday afternoon, Lane's defence attorney, Kathryn Herold, requested that a defence expert be present during the autopsy.
"In this particular case, the cause of death is going to be essential," she said.
Dynel Lane's husband told investigators that when he came home from work early to meet her for a pre-natal appointment, he found her covered in blood and a baby gasping for breath in a bathtub. Lane told her husband she had suffered a miscarriage, and he took her and the baby to a hospital, where she was later arrested on suspicion of attempted first-degree murder and other crimes.
While drifting in and out of consciousness, the 26-year-old woman, who was nearly 8 months pregnant with a baby girl, told police she did not know Lane and only went to her house in response to the ad, an affidavit states.
The woman later managed to call emergency dispatch, and police arrived to help her sometime after Lane and her husband left.
Lane went to great lengths to show her family she was pregnant, sharing an ultrasound photo with her daughter, the affidavit says.
She and her former husband lost a 19-month-old boy in a drowning accident in 2002. A July 2002 obituary for Lane's son, Michael Alexander Cruz, in the Pueblo Chieftan said the boy had just learned to sing his first song, "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star."